Horror Writers Association

Celebrating Our Elders: Interview with Stefan Dziemianowicz


Photo credit: Ann Dziemianowicz

Stefan Dziemianowicz has edited more than fifty anthologies of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, including the Bram-Stoker Award-winning (thanks, HWA!) Horrors: 365 Scary Stories. He is the author of the story collection Bloody Mary and Other Tales for a Dark Night and co-editor of Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopedia. He was a founding editor of the British Fantasy Award-winning Necrofile: The Review of Horror Fiction and his reviews and features have appeared in the Washington Post, Locus, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. His fingerprints are all over a lot of genre titles and literary classics in the marketplace and should be used as incriminating evidence. 

Did you start out writing or working in the horror field, and if so why? If not, what were you writing initially and what compelled you to move into horror?

Some perspective here, first: Any mark I’ve made in the horror field I’ve made as a critic, book reviewer, and/or editor/anthologist—not as a writer of fiction. (I do have one short story collection, but that calls for some explaining.)

I was born in 1957. I read a lot of science fiction as a kid because that was the fiction most readily available in the ’60s and ’70s if your reading tastes inclined toward the fantastic. But I always gravitated toward the weird and macabre. I first came across Poe’s short stories in my grade/high school readers. Also Saki’s “The Open Window,” W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” These stories were included in those books as examples of good storytelling, indiscriminate of the dark territory they strayed into, and my exposure to them as a young reader made a strong impact. I always ferreted out the horror selections that peppered the contents of the Alfred Hitchcock anthologies prevalent at the time. And speaking of Hitchcock shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery were playing regularly on the television in the years when my adolescent self was chowing on mass-market paperbacks of fiction by Lovecraft, Bradbury, and Robert E. Howard.

By the early ’80s, I was a recovering academic, newly rediscovering the thriving horror small-press (which I’d been on the fringe of in my pre-college days) and its invaluable intersection with the trade publishing market. The abundance of books coming out was a clarion call for anyone who wanted to review or write critically on horror. I was a Lovecraft droolie and the foundations for serious critical appraisal of his work and its impact on the horror field—Lovecraft in particular, and horror (and other genres) fiction in general, were still considered beneath contempt largely in the literary canon—were being laid in Crypt of Cthulhu, Lovecraft Studies, and a handful of other publications. From there it was possible to jump to other magazines dedicated to spreading the gospel of horror. Oh, what a paradise it seemed!

Who were your influences as a writer when you started out and who, if anyone, continues to influence you?

Remember what I said about reading a lot of science fiction in my youth? I also read a lot of science fiction criticism. Sam Moskowitz’s two collections of biocritical essays on fantasy and science fiction writers, Explorers of the Infinite and Seekers of Tomorrow, were very important books for me.

It was through Sam that I caught wind of In Search of Wonder, a compilation of book reviews that Damon Knight had published in pulp science fiction magazines in the 1950s. I don’t know how relevant readers find his work today, but Damon is credited with being one the first reviewers to apply the same critical standards in his appraisals of fantastic fiction that reviewers applied to trade and literary fiction. No ego-boo backslapping in his reviews—and he wasn’t scared at all of occasionally goring sacred bulls that were fan favorites despite their questionable merit. I didn’t agree with all of Damon’s assessments—in fact, some annoyed the piss out of me—but I came away from his book knowing that I had to be able to argue from a critical foundation as strong as his, were I to challenge any of his opinions. When I and my fellow editors began putting together issues of Necrofile: The Review of Horror Fiction in the ’90s, we embraced a critical ethos similar to that which Damon championed.

 How have the changes in horror publishing over the past decades affected you?

 As a reviewer/critic I suspect the changes in horror publishing haven’t affected me as much as they have fiction writers trying to make a career from their writing or at least a name for themselves in the field. Even though horror seems to have shifted from a genre with a significant trade publishing presence to a fiction sustained through the efforts of specialty presses and publishers, the books still appear and offer themselves up for reading and study. The landscape is a lot different today than it was during horror’s fulminant years of the 1980s/90s—but there still is a landscape.

One change that has impacted my work, in a good way, is the noticeable percolation of horror themes and premises into general trade and literary fiction—books whose red-velvet ropes they never would have been allowed to pass beyond a few decades back. Every so often I’ll be reading a book that’s not marketed as horror and it becomes very apparent from casually dropped references and allusions that the author grew up with Stephen King paperbacks in the house or watched some slasher films as an adolescent, or read some graphic novels from the dark end of the spectrum. Like it or not—We like it, although others might not—horror has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in our popular culture over the past half-century and there’s a new generation of up-and-coming writers who are not afraid or ashamed to acknowledge this—who might even realize that not to acknowledge this is not only disingenuous but a cheat in their depictions of the everyday worlds of their stories. Bravo!

Do you think you’ve encountered ageism? If so, how do you counteract or deal with it?

 I’ve encountered some ageism in my life outside of horror, but never in the horror field. To the contrary, a number of younger readers and writers have paid me the ultimate compliment of acknowledging that an anthology I compiled or a critical essay I published years ago made an impact on them—or at least holds a cherished spot in their personal libraries. You can’t beat that.

What do you wish you knew when you were just getting into the field?

 I would have to wrack my brain to answer this question. I became part of the horror community as a fan and a reader. I still consider myself both. I had no illusions about establishing a career in horror. It’s always been a passion and an enthusiasm—one that sustained me as I muddled through the less rewarding obligations of my life. I’m truly humbled by any recognition I’ve earned in the field, and I am eternally grateful for the friends and associates I’ve made doing this horror thang. No regrets.

Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?

Three simple words: Read. Read. Read. The more you read the more you know the history of the fiction whose form you’re writing in. Also, the more you read, the more you know what works on the printed page (and what doesn’t). 

And if you’re writing horror fiction, you need to read more than just horror. Speaking personally, the most important years of my life as a writer were my six years of college and grad school, when I had to forego the steady diet of fantastic fiction that had nurtured me up to that point and delve into classics and world literature. I came back to genre fiction with an appreciation of it as one form of storytelling within a broader, more diversified tradition, no less or more important than other storytelling forms.

They shall remain nameless here, but the horror writers whose work I most admire, and whose books I think will be remembered beyond their lifetimes, all are/were voracious readers.

Do you think older characters are represented fairly and honestly in horror fiction?

Let’s face it, aging doesn’t get a good shake in horror fiction. In classic horror hideous survivals from the ancient past tend to cause genuinely nasty shit—and they’re often embodied in some elderly creep as their agent. Older characters tend not to fare much better in modern horror. For every Jud Crandall in Pet Sematary or Dick Halloran in The Shining—older folks willing to offer helpful advice and warning to their younger, less-experienced friends—the literature seems overripe with ancient Wizard Whateley types from Lovecraft, Castevet couples throwing baby showers for unwitting young mothers-to-be of the anti-Christ, and matriarchs and patriarchs of southern gothic dynasties who know where all of the bodies in their multi-generational families are buried.

This is entirely understandable. So much horror fiction written over the past half-century was written by we boomers, and the anxieties expressed in it—and that readers identified with—were those of a younger generation coming into its own: We just bought our first house—what if there’s more to all those creaks and groans than just the supports settling? We’re starting a family—what happens if our kids turn out to be made in something eviler than our own image? My new job sucks and my boss seems to have come from hell—whaddya think? Add to this a general backwash of suspicion and paranoia from the Vietnam and Watergate eras which instructed us that our elders often lied to us. Small wonder that we depicted older generation characters as one more problem to contend with. 

What are some of your favorite portrayals of older characters?

Dracula, of course: He’s six centuries old and he doesn’t look a day over fifty! Better yet: Lestat. He’s over two centuries old, and he’s a rockstar!

This is a loaded question for a literature in which a lot of characters are supernaturally superannuated. But to be serious: My list of favorite portrayals of older characters in horror fiction is topped by the men who make up the Chowder Society in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. At a time when it wasn’t really fashionable to do so, Peter immersed readers in the lives of a group of aging characters bound together through their common experience and shared secrets. They wear their vulnerabilities and frailties on their sleeves, and they are driven to redress a terrible error from their past, in no small part because their lives depend on it. I feel that Peter truly captured the insecurities and uncertainties prevalent for people who have reached that age where they’re taking stock of their lives, assessing their achievements but also their disappointments and embarrassments.

As for other character depictions, see my comments above about Jud Crandall and Dick Halloran.

Do you have anything you’d like to add that we haven’t asked?

Yeah. Who’s buying drinks at the next Stokercon?

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