Talking Horror With ‘Dark Screams’ Editors Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar

 

Good anthologies have always been a staple in my fiction diet, and I can credit the tireless (and often sadly thankless) efforts of talented editors for leading me to what became some of my favorite authors, as well as extending the sometimes limited lifespans of favorite short stories. I am very pleased to introduce two such hard-working editors to our readers, Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar.

Brian and Richard are two of the people behind the legendary horror magazine Cemetery Dance, and have recently finished work on Dark Screams: Volume One, an e-exclusive horror anthology from Hydrafeaturing stories by Stephen King, Kelley Armstrong, Bill Pronzini, Simon Clark, and Ramsey Campbell. Purchase it from your favorite ebook retailer December 9, 2014

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First of all, I want to thank you for agreeing to an interview. I’ve admired Cemetery Dance for a long time, but must admit that I don’t know much about the circumstances of its origin. Can someone give me the quick version of the story? Also, what does the name mean?

RC: “Cemetery Dance” was the title of one of the first short stories I ever sold. Way back in the Golden Days of the late 1980s! All I really remember is that I set out to write a story where the cemetery itself was almost a living and breathing character. I believe the first two magazines I sold it to went out of business before the story was ever published. Peter Crowther, a wonderful writer and editor, finally published it in his fine anthology, Narrow Houses, first in England and then here in the States.

I was selling a fair amount of short fiction during that time. There were dozens of small press magazines to submit to, and it was an exciting and energetic time to be a young writer of horror fiction. But…a lot of those small press magazines were of – how shall I say this? – less than stellar quality when it came to visual presentation. In many cases, not a lot of thought or energy went into concepts such as cover design, interior page design, or even the overall mix of contents.

I can remember being very excited to open an envelope containing my contributor copies, only to be a little embarrassed to show my friends and family the finished product. These feelings ultimately led me to start my own magazine in the summer of 1988. I was most impressed with David Silva’s The Horror Show magazine and once I discovered that he handled the editorial, promotional, and design duties all by himself, I figured if he could do it, why couldn’t I? Ahh, the ignorance and bravado of youth!

I published the first issue of Cemetery Dance in December of 1988, and it featured the mix of fiction, non-fiction, and interviews that I personally preferred in my own reading. It also highlighted a solid mix of established writers along with newcomers, something I greatly admired about The Horror Show and something we still try to accomplish today. And now, here it is almost 30 years later, and we are still ticking. Who ever would’ve guessed that?

I’ve always called Cemetery Dance “the horror fiction periodical of letter” because it seems like getting a story published there has often been the prelude to many professional careers, or a sign that you’ve made it. Who are some of the up-and-comers that you’ve published early on and seen go on to greater recognition?

RC: We were fortunate enough to publish early stories from writers such as Bentley Little, Norman Partridge, Ronald Kelly, Gary Braunbeck, Barry Hoffman, and many others.

Are there any experiences that you can remember that first turned you on to horror fiction? Mine was an anthology for young readers titled Ten Tales Calculated to Give You Shudders.

RC: For me, it was horror comics and then those Saturday afternoon Creature Double Features on television. I was captivated and used to run inside – skipping out on whiffle ball games, football games, fishing with my friends, etc. – just to get home in time to watch my scary movies. Once I got a little older, it was Stephen King. And I never looked back.

BJF: In terms of my childhood, the stage might have been set by the creepy old woods we lived by until I was five years old. We were in the middle of nowhere and I would explore those woods for hours on end, finding all kinds of abandoned trash and treasures. One of the biggest treasures was a rusted pick-up truck with a tree growing out through the smashed windshield. The truck had probably been there for thirty years, and I always looked at the miles of trees all around it and wondered, “How did this get here?”

In terms of my reading, I read everything I could as a kid, mostly your standards like The Hardy Boys and The Kid Who Only Hit Homers and Choose Your Own Adventure type books until I discovered a bookcase full of Stephen King books in my parents’ basement. I spent a summer reading as many of them as I could reach, and then I started reading the books and authors that King had mentioned in his afterwords and introductions: Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, HP Lovecraft, Peter Straub, etc. At that point, I was hooked for life.

How did you go about choosing the stories for Dark Screams? You have to have read hundreds of thousands of short stories In your lives. Is it harder to do an anthology with a more general than specific theme, say, “the best horror stories of the last hundred years” versus “vampire stories”?

BJF: Our main goal with Dark Screams was to find a really nice mix of different types of horror stories. Some quiet, some loud, some with twists, and some that played off of tropes and standards. Hopefully, there’s a little something for every horror fan in these!

You’ve got a nice little mix of names here; some real heavy hitters. Seeing Kelley Armstrong is a very nice surprise, and Stephen King’s story was made into one of the stories in Creepshow, wasn’t it? I think that he starred in it, too.

BJF: Correct! The actual short story has only appeared in print a few times and never in any of Stephen King’s collections, so we were really pleased to be able to include “Weeds” here for the majority of readers who have never had a chance to actually read it.

I’ve always considered Ramsey Campbell one of the horror genre’s lesser-known masters, at least among casual readers in the United States, and while I’m quite familiar with Simon Clark, I think he’ll be a new and welcome discovery for some horror fans. I’m very interested in your inclusion of a story by Bill Pronzini, though. I’m not familiar with his work. Isn’t he a crime novelist?

BJF: Bill is well-known for his many mystery and detective books, such as his Nameless Detective series, but he also has a real dark streak. “Magic Eyes” is his story in Dark Screams and it’s the sort of tale that sneaks up on you from behind when you least expect it.

What are you hoping readers will get out of Dark Screams? What will qualify as “mission accomplished”?

RC: First and foremost, a solid return of entertainment for their investment. I hope they find the stories to be worth their time and money, and they decide to seek out further volumes. Mission accomplished would be a lot of happy readers, and hopefully a lot of happy readers who might not select horror or dark suspense as their usual reading material.

My question about Pronzini seems like a good segue into a discussion of genre. How solid are the boundary lines between horror and other genres? I’ve read a few crime and science fiction stories that absolutely horrified me, but they weren’t labeled “horror”, and as problematic as defining horror can be, the popular alternative designation, “dark fantasy” seems even more difficult.

RC: I don’t believe the lines are very solid at all. Not anymore. Sure, some folks still need to squeeze everything into neat little categories to help them with marketing campaigns, but I completely agree with what you said above. I have read crime, mystery, fantasy, western, science fiction, even mainstream fiction that has chilled me to my core.

With an exception made for the eighties horror boom (which I’d credit almost completely to Stephen King) there has been a stigma associated with being labeled a “horror author”. Am I correct in this observation? Is it getting any better? I know a few really great “lit” writers who use pseudonyms to publish horror material, lest one taint the other. It seems easier for great horror writers to cross over to literary fiction than literary authors to cross over to horror.

BJF: How authors are categorized is always kind of interesting to me because some of the darkest, most twisted things I’ve ever read have been in books that no one would think to call horror, least the judges for the literary awards get the wrong idea about how smart or deserving the author is!

Fantasy suffered from a similar stigma, but it seems to have nearly disappeared now. I’ve seen a handful of writers and public figures who previously showed no public interest (or even denied any interest) in fantastic literature and fan culture tripping over their own proverbial feet in the rush to demonstrate their fantasy and “geek” bona fides! Not that I mind: Welcome to the party, folks! (“Gooba gabba, gooba gabba, we accept you! One of us!”) Will the horror genre ever see the same kind of sea change?

BJF: It’s always funny because I’ll hear from people who say they had never read any horror fiction, but they always tune in for The Walking Dead, never miss an episode. Then one day they realized, “What a second, I bet there are scary books, too!” So, we always welcome everyone who has never given horror fiction a shot who wants to check it out. There’s something for everyone if you look around, there really is!

This is, of course, an eBook exclusive. I’ve likened being a writer in the age of the Internet and e-publishing to the golden age of the pulps: If you’re versatile, have the requisite skills, and can meet deadlines, then you can find work. However, I’m not a fiction writer or even a publisher. What is it like on your side of the aisle?

BJF: eBooks really have changed everything, of course, in terms of being able to reach readers anywhere in the world. There are more ways to get your work out there than ever before, although at the same time there are fewer paying markets for most fields. There are also more expectations on the writer, I think, to be able to promote your own work via social media and the such.

One last question: What kind of practical, real world advice would you give an aspiring horror writer?

RC: Read as much as you can, write as much as you can. It’s not easy to do or find the time and energy to do. It’s take a lot of sacrifice. But if you’re serious about it you have to do it. Read in all genres. Read fiction and non-fiction. Learn to recognize how words flow and connect to make a sentence sing. Figure out what it is you want to say and how to say it. And, maybe most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail. In fact, expect it and embrace it as part of the process.