Meet author David J. Skal #HorrorLounge
Tell us about your latest book
Why Dracula? What is so fascinating about Bram Stoker?
Stoker and Dracula are fascinating for the same reason. They’re both sketchy, shadowy characters about which we know very little and therefore are forced to wonder about, even obsess upon. Stoker left us almost no personal diaries or letters, and Dracula is similarly enigmatic, a penumbral creature who remains offstage for most of the book. The little we do know about them suggests much more, and we eagerly try to complete their portraits with our imaginations.
To what extent do you think Bram Stoker’s life informed his writing of Dracula the character?
The character of Dracula was with him his entire life, ever since he encountered the Demon King of the Christmas pantomimes. His mother filled his world with frightening stories, folklore and fairy tales, and DRACULA was the ultimate result. DRACULA is essentially a fairy tale for adults.
What do you mean when you say that Dracula ‘meant far less to Bram Stoker than it has come to mean to us’?
Stoker was never completely in control of his writing. It came to him in an almost mediumistic way, rather like automatic writing. I doubt that he gave much thought to the deeper implications of DRACULA. He had a lot of trouble just finishing it, and his major concern was making money. We, on the other hand, are far more interested in making sense of the book, and have had more than a century to tease out Dracula’s secrets. In the Victorian age, no one looked for hidden meanings in popular literature. Freudian notions of sexual symbolism and unconscious subtexts hadn’t even been formulated in Stoker’s time, but have had a dominant influence on literary criticism and appreciation in our own. Stoker wouldn’t recognize most of the shapes Dracula has assumed since his death, or have the capacity to comprehend the cultural omnipresence that his undying creation has achieved.
First memory of reading horror
I read Poe at least as early as the fourth grade. I must have clearly communicated my enthusiasm at the time, since I recall a teacher calling me “Edgar Allan.”
For readers new to horror which 3 books would you recommend they start with?
I’d recommend many more than three, but start with Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles.
Do you have a favourite horror sub-genre, and why?
Gruesome police procedurals. I find real-world horror particularly gripping and disturbing.
Most terrifying book you’ve ever read.
Your favourite Stephen King book.
New horror authors you’d recommend.
Not exactly newly minted, but at least contemporary: Patrick McGrath and Thomas Ligoti.
Who do you consider the King and Queen of horror fiction?
Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, the two most influential and imitated horror writers of all time.
Your favourite horror film (adapted from a book) & why?
PSYCHO. Hitchcock turned a good novel into a true movie masterpiece.
Horror book that you’d like to see adapted to film & why?
Live Girls by Ray Garton. An original and audacious tale of vampire hookers working out of a Times Square peepshow. It already reads like a screenplay.
Best horror TV?
From my childhood, THRILLER with Boris Karloff. More recently, PENNY DREADFUL, hands down. A crime the show was canceled.
Did you write in other genres or straight to horror?
I began my writing career in science fiction, and published three novels and numerous magazine stories in the 1970s and 1980s. The subjects were fairly creepy—reviewers sometimes compared me to David Cronenberg—and it was an easy move for me into horror, although I approached the genre from a nonfiction perspective instead of a novelist.
Tell us briefly about your route to being published
One of my favorite writers when I was young was Harlan Ellison, who took a personal interest in my work and recommended my acceptance into the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, which was a transforming experience, with teachers and mentors including Ellison, Damon Knight, Samuel Delany, Fritz Leiber, and many others. I published nothing but short stories for several years, but had much difficulty with longer work, which workshops like Clarion couldn’t practically accommodate. Writing novels requires a completely different kind of focus and concentration, and I had to completely retrain myself. When I began to write nonfiction, I naturally began to use novelistic techniques, which I guess has become something of a personal trademark.
Tell us about your fans
I’m quite fortunate to have a broad spectrum of readers, ranging from monster fans to serious academics. I make a very conscious effort to keep my work engaging for a crossover readership, trying to be intelligently readable but avoiding pretentious critical jargon at all costs. It seems to work.
Horror doesn’t seem to be as well respected as other genres of fiction. Why do you think that is?
Since horror delves deeply into aspects of human nature we usually try to suppress, it’s not surprising people resist taking it seriously or want to denigrate it. Horror is always on the verge of revealing embarrassing truths. It’s not particularly well-behaved, and is always tited toward transgression. The best horror simply doesn’t want to play by the rules, and therefore alienates as many people as it attracts.
Do you think horror is ready for a renaissance?
Since horror never really dies or retreats, it doesn’t ever need to reborn. But it does need to adapt and evolve. It’s when people start noticing these fresh developments that they start talking about a horror renaissance, but the truth is that the genre is incredibly sturdy and resilient.
Tips for new writers of horror fiction.
Look to the real world for inspiration, not fiction or movies. Limit your reading to the best stylists in every genre, and cultivate your own unique, elegant style. You’ll achieve your best horror effects not with screams, but by quiet, controlled whispers.
Do you believe in evil?
Yes. Does anyone involved in the horror genre ever say no?
What scares you?
Heights. Tightly closed spaces. Republicans
3 most scary words in English language?
Donald John Trump
Do you celebrate Halloween?
I’d like to, but given the field I’m in, I’m almost always working. People frequently ask me what I plan to be for Halloween, and I usually reply that I’m going to be the terrifying monster of them all: a talk show guest!