Nightmare Royale #6: That Kickass Horror Movie you Wish you Were Watching May Already be a Book. (SO READ IT!)
A funny thing happened, on the way to writing this column.
I was just minding my own business — taking a contemplative dump on the entire idea of $200-million-dollar movies, and what a bad creative model I think they embody —when I got a message from a fine freaky fellow by the name of Jack Bantry.
Seems he has an old-fashioned DIY print horror zine called Splatterpunk in the U.K., devoted entirely to hardcore horror fiction. And he came up with the brilliant idea of a joint interview between myself and my favorite young up-and-coming Korean/Scottish/Mexican-American author, Shane McKenzie (see my reviews of MUERTE CON CARNE and ADDICTED TO THE DEAD). Kind of an old guy/new guy juxtaposition, taking the temperature of the times.
Shane and I both jumped at this opportunity for a zesty little meeting-of-the-minds. The interview will appear in the next issue of Splatterpunk, coming right up. It’s gonna be juicy. Y’all are gonna want to check that out.
However, one question in particular set off such a long, involved discussion between us that it would have gobbled Jack’s entire fucking zine. And it cut so deeply to the heart of what this column is about that I totally had to make it this month’s entry.
So with apologies to Jack, and no further ado, here’s the uncut one-on-one. HOPE YOU ENJOY!
JACK BANTRY: John, you are obviously associated with “splatterpunk”. People still talk about the sub-genre now. It was a revolution in horror literature, memorable because it was shocking, more graphic than the horror fiction before it, more visual and visceral. Shane, you’ve come straight in, writing badass splatter fiction and bizarro. Now graphic horror is the norm, sex and violence are to be expected. So now, when you’re writing a horror novel, how do you shock people?
SHANE MCKENZIE: I try and shock myself. You never know what will shock who, so worrying about that is a waste of time really. I’ve written stuff that I didn’t think was all that bad, but have had readers tell me it was the most disgusting thing they had ever read. So when I write something and read over it and it makes me chuckle, I know I’m onto something.
I remember Skipp was a judge at the very first gross out contest I ever participated in. When I saw him and the other judges clap after I had gulped down a bowl of grandma cum, I knew I had chosen the right field.
JOHN SKIPP: (laughs) We all knew you were in the right field, too. God help you.
But you new guys have a very different aesthetic than we did. Don’t get me wrong: half the pleasure of writing hardcore shit has always been freaking people out. But the question becomes: why are we freaking people out? What do we hope to accomplish with it?
The most heartbreaking thing about splatterpunk — and the reputation it’s come away with — is that people remember the splat, but they forget the punk. Which is the subversive ingredient. Just speaking personally, I love using heightened imagery and cinematic pace to whip things up. But I never wanna just wallow in the awfulness. It’s all about finding exciting ways to provoke the culture into looking at itself. Poking holes in the bullshit. And getting to the heart of the matter. Cuz that’s where the real shock is.
This is one of the reasons why your work stands out for me. I’m halfway through ADDICTED TO THE DEAD right now, and you’re pushing some buttons here that really impress me. You’re not just going for it, but — as Joe McKinney points out beautifully in his intro — you’re making actual points. This is some balls stuff. But not everyone is doing that.
MCKENZIE: Wow, thanks, Skipp. You’re absolutely right. If we’re not making points…well, it’s pointless. That being said, I still dig short stories and short novellas that are just balls-out fun. And I still write those kinds of stories because, yeah, they’re fun to write. But the best story is exactly what you said. Stories that have something to say about people and culture, about our society. Those are the books that stick with you long after you’ve read them.
So I’m curious. How do you feel about the extreme horror that’s been coming out the past few years? Are we on the right track?
SKIPP: I’m fascinated by the extent to which you guys got influenced by the pulp factor way more than the splatterpunk factor. Which is to say, the cult of Laymon seems far more powerfully in evidence than much of what Clive Barker, David J. Schow, or Craig and I were doing. Of the core bunch of what I consider splatterpunk, Joe R. Lansdale seems to have had the most lasting stylistic influence.
MCKENZIE: Yes, I totally agree. Lansdale was a huge influence on me. Through his writing, I learned how to make characters breathe. I learned a lot about writing crackling dialogue.
SKIPP: And then Ketchum, whose popularity came on later, with his dead-eyed realism. But with Ketchum, you never get the sense that he’s getting off on the horror. I think Laymon taught a whole generation or two that it was cool to get rapey a lot, for fun. And I don’t think that’s worked out so well.
MCKENZIE: As much as I love Laymon…it was damn rapey, wasn’t it? And hey, if it’s right for the story, there’s nothing wrong with adding some rape.
SKIPP: I guess my question is: why so many stories where rape seems right?
SKIPP: This is true. Perfect example.
MCKENZIE: I think with a lot of stuff I’ve read, the authors assumes that if there is a rape scene, the story is now edgy and the reader will be shocked. But unless there’s a purpose to it, it’s just lazy writing. We can do better than that.
SKIPP: Lazy-ass writing is the bane of every genre. And rape as a cheap shot never fails to piss me off. So let me ask you something. Where do you think the heart is in modern hardcore horror?
MCKENZIE: That’s really hard to say. I still consider myself a rookie. I’m still learning the ropes. But something that I think is important, and it’s something we hear all the time, is that a writer needs to find a way to make their work their own. Yes, you should read up on Ketchum, Lee, Skipp, Schow, Lansdale, all those guys. But don’t emulate them. Study their work, figure out why it’s so effective, and then put your spin on it. We are all unique. Figure out what you, and only you, can bring to the table.
So what’s the heart of modern hardcore horror? Pushing the envelope. We hear all the time that people can’t be shocked anymore, that everyone is desensitized. I disagree. They just won’t be shocked by the same shit over and over again, that’s all.
SKIPP: Okay. To refine my question: WHERE’S THE HEART? If the goal is to push the envelope, and therefore push the desensitization zone further and further from normal central nervous system function, is our goal to electroshock our audience to the point where they can’t feel fucking anything?
Because your work is very deeply felt. And that stands it out from the crowd, for me.
MCKENZIE: Well, to be perfectly honest with you, part of how I stood out in the first place was by pushing the envelope. I was noticed as a guy who was good at being nasty, at making people want to puke. That’s not all I want to do with my career, but that’s how it got started. But once I had people’s attention, I wanted to tell them a story. I didn’t just want to be as disgusting as possible for 80,000 words. Unless there is a good story taking place, all that extreme stuff gets boring, no matter how well it’s done.
So! Where is the heart? For me, and this might sound cliché, but the heart for hardcore horror is the same as it is for mainstream horror or any other genre for that matter. A good, interesting fucking story. With interesting characters that are real, that breathe on the page. Without that, it’s all just one big gross-out contest.
SKIPP: I love that you just said that. Because the books that made my reputation — THE LIGHT AT THE END, THE CLEANUP, THE SCREAM — weren’t small press/pulp books, but mainstream novels that stood out because they were insanely fucked-up books aimed straight at the mainstream’s head. Winning the Gross-Out Contest, as then conducted on the mainstream end. But taking aim at a lot of big issues in the process, with a focus on interesting, unusual people.
MCKENZIE: Yes! With MUERTE CON CARNE, what I hear the most is that I ruined Mexican food for my readers. “I’ll never eat another taco!” I get a lot. But the entire point of that book was to talk about how Mexican immigrants who cross over into the States illegally are seen as less than human. They disappear without a trace all the time, but do we hear Nancy Grace talking about any of them? Yes, the book has cannibalism and yes it gets disgusting, but that wasn’t the point.
SKIPP: MUERTE CON CARNE is fucking great, for exactly those reasons. The setup is insanely powerful, and I’ve never seen the issues stated better. But you brought the people. They came alive. And it went from awesome high-concept tomfoolery to engrossing kickass horror from the moment it stepped on the page.
I think you have to decide who your audience is. Who you’re shaking up, and why. If you’re doing this to make your friends laugh, FANTASTIC! That is truly one of the best reasons to write there is. And if you’re dialed primarily to your purest hardcore audience, odds are good that you know what they like.
But if you wanna take your crazy ideas wide, the questions become a) HOW wide? and b) WHY?
My biggest fear with small-press horror is that its only audience has become other aspiring horror writers. At which point, we disappear up our own ass, while the world goes on without us.
MCKENZIE: That was one of the first things I noticed once I entered the horror small press scene. Writers were writing for other writers.
SKIPP: That’s the fucking textbook definition of “disappearing up your own ass”.
MCKENZIE: So, Skipp. What can we do to help avoid getting lost up our own asses? How do we get the rest of the world to take notice?
I lose sleep over this shit, man. Do you think it’s just that not enough people know about us? We don’t have enough exposure? Other writers read our work because they want to write too. But what about all those horror fans out there that just fucking love horror? How do we get their attention? I mean, just look at the types of movies coming out. Hardcore horror is popular as hell. Why aren’t the millions of people who watch Rob Zombie or Eli Roth films reading our books? Do they just not know we exist?
SKIPP: It’s all about the fucking audience, dude. Which is to say: it’s all about communicating. And not just preaching to the choir. Sometimes, your choir is precisely who you need to fuck with most. And not always in the ways they expect.
Why is Stephen King still the biggest horror writer on Earth? A writer so big that mainstream publishing doesn’t figure it needs much of anyone else? Well, aside from the fact that he’s a super-fine writer at his best, it’s also because he connects with people. Even his worst books do that. It’s a genuine gift, and says a lot about who he is as a person.
Much of the 80s boom was a corporate attempt to find someone who could crank ’em out and bang it up like King. The closest they came was Koontz. My nine-year-run in the big league dance was spent surfing a radical wave, then being asked to dial it back.
But the shit that hit sold a million copies. And we did it several times. Which says to me that it hit a lot more people than define themselves as horror fans.
Part of it was having a giant publishing machine with one editor inside it who said, “I could sell the fuck out of this.” And part of it was just bringing a lot of energy and thought and heart, coupled with an insane desire to entertain. So that no matter how bad it got, you were still weirdly having a good time through most of it. And that you knew we actually cared about you.
I think we know the difference between someone who’s with us and against us. The more hardcore it becomes, the clearer it can get between people who are taking us there out of love, and people who just wanna hurt us because they can.
MCKENZIE: Something you just said really intrigues me. Your book sold to a lot of people who don’t define themselves as horror fans. Why did they buy it then? Is it because, like the publishers, they were searching for another King? Did they trust the publisher so much that they would buy anything they published?
As a reader, I seek out authors. I know who I like, and I search for their stuff. The only way I read a new author is by someone’s recommendation. Or if a publisher that I trust publishes them. For instance, if Deadite published a new author next year, someone I’ve never heard of, I’d want to read it.
SKIPP: They were looking for the next hit. They’re ALWAYS looking for the next hit. And Stephen King had sold enough — on the heels of breakthrough stories like ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE EXORCIST — that they finally realized horror might have some serious money in it.
I was lucky enough to get caught up in that feeding frenzy. And Bantam’s aggressive marketing campaign for THE LIGHT AT THE END — bus ads, radio ads, print ads and reviews, not to mention prominent placement in major book stores — took it to the New York Times bestseller list. (I think we hit #12, with that million copies.)
If a major corporation isn’t willing to go there with you, you’re an outsider. So how does an outsider break through?
MCKENZIE: Uh huh, uh huh?
SKIPP: I gotta say. With a guy like you? I think 90% of your biggest potential hardcore audience doesn’t even READ books until there’s a movie that tells them they’re supposed to. At which point, they’ll tear each other up for copies.
But that’s only half of the story. Because indie horror film is in a weird place, too, its face ground into the dirt by the boot of remake-mania. Because movies are so fucking expensive, everybody seems to have forgotten that the iconic groundbreakers were almost always scrappy motherfuckers shot for next-to-no money. And the next groundbreakers will likely be shot that way, too.
Past that, almost all the great power of horror has been absorbed by other genres: crime, romance, fantasy, sf. They have all been forced to grow horror balls. Taking our shock, and finding new ways to play it.
So if that’s all we bring to the party, our party’s just gonna get smaller and smaller.
MCKENZIE: See, this is what confuses me. I feel like horror is having some great moments right now, as far as popularity goes, with shows like THE WALKING DEAD, DEXTER, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, etc.
Is it just that people are too lazy to read a book? It’s too much of a commitment? I was that guy not that long ago. I rolled my eyes at the people who told me, “The book was better.”
Is that really all it would take? Is a movie really just a really expensive ad for my book?
So your first audience is readers, flat out. BUT NOT JUST OTHER WRITERS. That is such a small pond. It’s like writing a tragic breakup song for your girlfriend, as you break up with her. Of course SHE’S gonna cry! But what about everyone else?
Did you nail it so hard that complete strangers will start crying as well? If you did, TA-DAH! If you didn’t, you just emotionally beat up your girlfriend.
My point is that you have to make sure you’re hitting notes that resonate far and wide, in the context of the tight little story you’re telling. Otherwise, your audience is limited to those who only care about how much you made them puke in their mouths just now. And that’s a very small crowd.
MCKENZIE: That’s exactly why I tackle the sorts of subjects that I do. Obesity and addiction come up with me a lot. Party because I struggled with both, still do, but also because it’s something that hits on a deep level with a lot of people.
SKIPP: When I think about MUERTE CON CARNE, I don’t just think “Wow! TEXAS CHAINSAW with Mexicans!” I think, “This is a story with its finger on the button.”
MCKENZIE: Thanks, Skipp. That fucking means a lot.
SKIPP: But if you can get people to care — if you can keep them hanging on your words — then books are the shit.
As for film: it’s a natural-born truth that waaaaaaay more people would rather watch a movie, or TV show, or YouTube clip, than read a book. That’s not just laziness. It’s cultural conditioning. School teaches us that reading is a pain in the ass. And most of what we’re asked to read just reinforces it.
I think that — if your cards are played right — several of these books you’re writing are gonna inspire filmmakers to jump. At which point, your stories will play in the popular medium of choice. And diehard fuckers will be saying, “No. I’VE got the first edition!”
MCKENZIE: I sure hope you’re right about that. Once I discovered books — and by that I mean books I wanted to read — there was no turning back for me. As you said, they are the shit. We’re allowed into our characters minds, get to read their thoughts. No movie can ever match that.
As much as I’d like to see a movie made out of one of my books — and Skipp, you know I’m trying to make that happen as we speak — I don’t let myself get too hung up on that. Because it’s still the writing that’s most important to me. I have so many stories that I want to tell, and maybe it’s because I’m new, but I just can’t get them out of my fucking head fast enough.
SKIPP: Dude, the last thing I’d ever wanna do is quench or otherwise extinguish your fire. YOU’RE ON FIRE! There is no substitute. Ride that flaming wave as far as you can take it.
The kinds of stories you’re telling, and the ways you’re telling them, are innately cinematic. Your instincts are superb. There are people who will wanna hop on that bus because they get where you’re going. And some of them are hungry filmmakers DYING for the kinds of stories you’re telling. And believe me, they need ’em.
This is a form of cross-pollination that I dearly hope is gonna work out huge for you, and Adam Cesare, and several others of your generation who are finding new ways of pushing shit hard.
I feel like my job here at Fango — with the reviews and such — is to introduce fans and film people to the incredible stories they’re missing. Hopefully, this will help connect you to a wider audience, whether the movies ever get made or not.
But if someone makes a great one… man, that would be fucking sweet.
So THAT’S ALL YOU GET! For more, please check out Splatterpunk Zine and order your copy.
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to finish taking a shit on overpriced spectacle at the expense of soul. But in the meantime, here are a couple of music videos that I think you might enjoy.
The first is once again directed by Phil Mucci, this time for the metal band Huntress. Once again proving that you don’t need a trillion dollars if you have a full-blown genius at the helm.
The second bubbles up from the rap/metal underground by way of director Otis Johnson, on behalf of the beautifully-monikered band Grindhaus! (Exclamation point included.)
All I gotta say is that Joe Sharp — mouse ears and all — is one terrifying motherfucker.
I hope Shane McKenzie approves.
Yer pal in the trenches,