Stoker Spotlight: 13 Questions with Ellen Datlow, editor of Haunted Legends and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award

Ellen Datlow is the recipient of the 2010 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology as well as the recipient of the HWA Lifetime Achievement Award. She has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for over twenty-five years. She was fiction editor of Omni Magazine and Scifiction and has edited more than fifty anthologies, including The Best Horror of the Year, Inferno, Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, Lovecraft Unbound, Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, Blood and Other Cravings, Supernatural Noir, the Mythic series of young adult books and Teeth: Vampire Tales (with Terri Windling), Haunted Legends (with Nick Mamatas). Forthcoming is the young adult dystopian anthology After, with Terri Windling.

She has won multiple Locus Awards, Hugo Awards, Stoker Awards, International Horror Guild Awards, World Fantasy Awards, and The Shirley Jackson Award for her editing. She was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre.” She has also been honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career.

She co-curates the long-running Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in New York City’s east village.

More information can be found at www.datlow.com or at her blog: http://ellen-datlow.livejournal.com/ and on Facebook. She also, (gods help her) tweets, under @EllenDatlow but only from her home computer (not phone).

How would you describe Haunted Legends?
Haunted Legends is an all original anthology of re-told urban legends and regional ghost tales from around the world. It includes variations on the phantom hitchhiker –(in Fiji and England), Vietnamese fox spirits, and the spirits of human monsters among other types of stories.

Tell us about what inspired you to edit Haunted Legends.
There are many many purportedly nonfiction books about encounters with “real” ghosts. They’re usually lackadaisically written, predictable, and dull. We wanted to create a more imaginative version of those with actual fiction writers.

What was the process like editing the book?
Although much of the book was invitation only, we had a limited open reading period during which Nick volunteered to read submissions. He passed on about twenty five to me, we discussed the ones we both liked and added them to our mix. We split up the editing of the stories (before we even accepted some of them) by whether we had worked with the writer before or if we felt one of us had more of an affinity with the story itself (and what needed to be done to make it as good as it could be). I don’t recall the actual breakdown of how many we each put through revisions. I did a final line edit on each of them.

What most attracts you to editing horror?
It’s a subgenre of the Fantastique that I love (along with fantasy and science fiction). But I love the frisson effective horror can provide and I love working with a good writer to bring out the best in her story.

What are your thoughts about receiving the HWA Lifetime Achievement Award?
But I’m too young (I wailed)–I feel as if I’m only in the middle of my career. I have no intention of ever retiring–as long as I can sell anthologies or if I’m offered a job with a magazine, I’ll keep editing short stories.

What are you working on now?
Terri Windling and I have handed in After, a young adult dystopian/post-apocalyptic anthology to Hyperion, which should be out in the fall of 2012. We’re currently working on an adult Victorian fantasy anthology. I’m hoping to sell more anthologies (horror and fantasy) this year and of course, as always I’m reading for the Best Horror of the Year volume 4.

What do you see as horror literature’s role in contemporary culture?
It seems to channel the fears of its times. But I’m not an academic and I’m not going to pretend to be one. I have no idea. I love the stuff and have done so since I was a little girl.

Tell us about an experience or experiences with the HWA that influenced your work or helped you as an editor.
I’ve been a member for a long time and overall the organization has made me feel I’ve got fellow travelers in my love of horror.

What advice would you share with new horror writers? What do you think are the biggest challenges most writers face?
Keep working on your writing and develop your own voice as a writer. And rewrite. Don’t send out a first draft. Put aside a story and go back to it in a few weeks. Be aware of your use of language. How you use it does count.

Making a living while writing (the old “don’t quit your day job”)
Finding the time/energy to write (related to above day job). The biggest challenge is to yourself—-developing a style and voice of your own and using those to create the best stories you can.

What are three of your favorite horror stories?
This minute, this second:

    “Heavy Set” by Ray Bradbury
    “Mr Clubb and Mr Cuff by Peter Straub
    Closet Dreams by Lisa Tuttle

In another minute/second, three others.

What’s your favorite Halloween memory or tradition?
Trick or treating. I lived in the suburbs, and we went to many apartments and boy would we stock up on the goodies. Bags of them.

Given a choice, trick? Or treat?
Treat

Who would win in a fight—the modern day walking dead or old school voodoo zombies?
Truthfully, I’d hope they’d all kill and eat each other so there would be no more zombie stories, books, comics, or movies.


Excerpt from Haunted Legends

Saying Boo: Why We Like Ghost Stories

There ain’t no such thing as ghosts.

Ghost stories, we have plenty. They’re easy to find, too. Every town seems to have some legends—lakes made of tears, phantom hitchhikers, mean ol’ men or ladies too ornery for heaven and too obnoxious for hell, and houses that resist occupation with all their supernatural might. There are the ghostly folktales too, often in the form of warnings to keep one’s children in one’s sight at all times to keep them from being eaten. Of course, some of these stories are also warnings to children to beware strangers or get enough sleep. Ghost stories even evolve into modern urban legends, which have their own social purposes. “Stay away from that fast food restaurant, you’ll regret it,” is one.

The ghost story doesn’t even necessarily require a ghost. In “The Ash-Tree” by M. R. James, there is a curse and a witch and “an enormous spider, veinous and seared,” but no real ghost. Even the spiders, despite their gigantism—”the size of a man’s head”—aren’t truly supernatural. They cannot travel much further than the titular tree in which they live, so the curse is easily avoided by staying out of the room with the tree-facing window, and they die in flames like any other sort of everyday arachnid. Most ghosts aren’t so easy to get rid of, because of what they represent: regret, nostalgia, hunger for another chance to get it right, and warnings to the curious. So we keep telling stories to one another, and we keep telling ourselves that they’re just stories. True stories.

There are enough ghost stories out there, and enough desire for them, that pretty much every locality and region has its own cottage industry dedicated to publishing the local variations. Sadly, most of these books of “true” ghost stories tend to be…bad. The local university folklorist can’t write much more than term papers on the local ghosts. The “paranormal investigator” with his electronic stud finder recalibrated to find ghosts instead of pieces of wood, hell, he can barely think, much less write a compelling story. It wasn’t high technology or modern rationality that for the most part exiled the ghost story to books nobody read, it was sheer bad writing. Most of the short stories just didn’t scare us anymore. The same way every city and town has been rationalized, bureaucratized, and Starbuckized into a homogeneous territory of tedium, the ghost story too has been rendered safe for sale to daytrippers, safe for presentation alongside “local” taffy (made centrally in a giant factory a thousand miles away) and the world’s largest ball of twine.

And yet, ghost stories cannot ever be made completely safe, because we are not ever safe. There are old houses one shouldn’t enter, hitchhikers one shouldn’t stop for, bits of forest a little too easy to get turned around in. Children wander off, and sometimes they don’t come back, but those innocent photos on the milk cartoons and the MISSING continue to haunt. And even the most complacent members of the bourgeoisie have their fortunes, and often their homes, built on piles of metaphorical bones if not always real ones. There are things we still don’t know, though we know there are no ghosts and no monsters. Ghosts are in the gaps. Life is still haunted by death. But the stale, easily-digested stories won’t suffice. Enter Haunted Legends.

Our concept was a simple: ask some of the best writers of horror and dark fantasy in the world to choose their favorite “true” regional ghost story, and to rescue it from the cobwebs of the local tourist gift shop or academic journal. The Double-Face Woman, the fox spirits of Vietnam, the specter of Communism still haunting Russia in the form of Comrade Beria’s ghost, we’ve got ‘em. The famed vampires of Rhode Island, the haunted amusement park you may not have ever heard of if you’re not from the Pacific Northwest, Australian shipwrecks and the Indian ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri, we’ve got them too. There ain’t no such thing as ghosts, but warnings to the curious, of those we have plenty.

Boo!

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