STEPHEN JONES: Outspoken Opinion in a British Accent from an Editor Extraordinaire
"I truly believe that, at its best, horror fiction is one of the most challenging and exciting fields of literature to work in." -- Stephen Jonesby Paula Guran
October, 1997 (Originally published by OMNI Online)
Stephen Jones was born in 1953 in London, in a hospital just across the River Thames from the events described by H.P. Lovecraft in his classic 1932 collaboration with Hazel Heald, "The Horror in the Museum." The protagonist of this, the only Lovecraft story set in London, meets his rather disgusting and typically Lovecraftian end in the crab-like claws of Rhan-Tegoth. Oddly, or perhaps fatefully, the doomed character's name was -- Stephen Jones!
Editors are not interviewed as often as writers, but Stephen Jones is not your average editor. His Best New Horror and Dark Terrorsseries are the only major anthologies showcasing cutting-edge fiction. Steve is the winner (at last count) of two World Fantasy Awards and two Bram Stoker Awards, as well as being a ten-time recipient of the British Fantasy Award and a Hugo Award nominee. He is a columnist, television producer/director and genre movie publicist and consultant(the first three Hellraiser films, Nightbreed; Split Second; Mind Ripper, etc.), and has edited or authored more than fifty books, including the Best New Horror, Dark Voices, Dark Terrors and Fantasy Tales series; the Mammoth Books of Terror, Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves, Frankenstein, and Dracula; The Illustrated Vampire, Dinosaur, Frankenstein, and Werewolf Movie Guides; Clive Barker's A-Z of Horror and Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden; H. P. Lovecraft's Book of Horror; Shadows Over Innsmouth, and many more. He co-edited the award-winning small press magazine Fantasy Tales (1977 -1987,) and from 1994 to1995 he was Editorial Director of Raven Books, a UK mass-market imprint of fantasy and horror fiction. Jones has one of the longest and most impressive lists of both works and awards you are likely to find.
As I asked for his time in answering my questions, Steve was incredibly busy. In his role as co-chairman of the 1997 World Fantasy Convention, he was preparing for that Hallowe'en weekend event in London; as an editor he was overseeing the preparation of no less than half-a-dozen new books that should all be out within the month.
Steve is vastly talented, erudite, intelligent, and decidedly opinionated on just about anything you'd want to ask his opinion of.
DE: Let's start out with the present, and maybe the future. As an anthology editor you deal with short fiction. David Hartwell, in his classic overview of horror fiction, The Dark Descent, contends the short story is the form that best suits horror...
SJ: I'm not sure that David is strictly correct -- certainly some of the best horror fiction has appeared in short story form, but there are also a great many classic novels in the genre that need the length of a book to suitably tell their story and build their atmosphere. The wonderful thing is that there's room for both to succeed in the horror field.
DE: Point taken. But you edited and published a magazine, Fantasy Tales, and work anthologizing short stories.Fantasy Tales presented masters of the form like Michael Moorcock, Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, Karl Edward Wagner, Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman, and Hugh B. Cave while also helping introduce newer (at that time) writers like Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Joe R. Lansdale, Kim Newman, and Neil Gaiman. Who do you consider writers of dark fiction to read today?
SJ: You can include all those writers you listed, from the original pulp writers through the "Young Guns" of the 1970s and '80s, to the newer names. I'd also add to that list Peter Straub, Michael Marshall Smith, Poppy Z. Brite, Nicholas Royle, Kathe Koja, Joel Lane, Roberta Lannes, Terry Lamsley, Caitlin Kiernan, David J. Schow and numerous others .We have something to learn from all of them, and each has the ability to entertain us with their distinctive prose.
DE: Why do you enjoy these writers and others like them?
SJ: The reason I enjoy work by all these writers is because they are stylists -- they know how to write, how to use words for effect and impact -- and they know how to tell a story. Having just one of these skills is not enough. You need to be able to come up with an original plot, interesting characters, and a method of successfully conveying information to the reader for any story to work. Unfortunately, far too many so-called writers in our field do not possess all of these skills, yet they are often considered "stars" by fanzine editors and readers alike. I find it very depressing to see people who can't write or have nothing to say winning awards, cluttering up pointless theme anthologies or being honored as guests at conventions.
DE: Do you want to name some names here, Steve? I think we owe it to these poor deluded editors, con organizers, and readers to clue them in.
SJ: No, I don't think I want to name any names. They all know who they are, and I have no interest in getting into any feuds or slanging matches.
DE: Where are we going to read these authors you recommend? There seem to be fewer and fewer outlets for short fiction -- magazines both here and in the U.K. are few, new anthologies are rare. Why are there so few opportunities?
SJ: Everybody is to blame. There are plenty of opportunities to read new authors -- trust me, I have to plow through piles of material for Best New Horror every year. However, too much sub-standard material is being written. Too many unnecessary anthologies are being published. Publishers only appear interested in multi-media tie-ins. And not enough readers -- or editors -- are supporting the worthwhile material.
DE: You mention readers who are not willing to support "worthwhile" material. Among the American readers I get feedback from -- there is sometimes no appreciation for a well crafted story or something challenging. They just react to what "they like" -- and that may not always be well written.
SJ: Yes, you're absolutely right. Most people in our genre are more than happy to just read the next X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer novelization -- and to treat it as if it was High Art. That's what is wrong. Most readers don't want to or don't care about reading original or challenging material. Dross may outsell the class stuff, but that doesn't mean we have to stop trying to produce the class stuff (although I know many writers who, because of financial considerations, sadly have had no choice). Few people care about an "original voice" in horror anymore. All they want is something just like the last thing. You can't blame the authors or the publishers all the time -- they are just supplying what the readers and booksellers demand.
DE: What kind of kinds of stories scare Steve Jones and why?
SJ: Sadly, very few stories (or movies) actually "scare" me these days. I've read and seen so much over the years that -- apart from a sudden shock effect -- the best I can hope for is a frisson of disqietude or nagging unease long after a good story has been read.
DE: How do you define horror?
SJ: I don't have to. I just know it when I read it.
DE: What about horror-as-a-field? Are you going to tell me the usual palaver? That everything is cyclical, that this is just the nadir of a cycle, and that horror is due to "come back?"
SJ: I've been involved in the fantasy field now for twenty-five years. During that time I've seen genres come and go. I truly do believe that these things are cyclical -- to be fair, horror is always out there somewhere in some form. It's just that at the moment it's not as "hot" as it was a few years ago. Thank God for that. When publishers and readers and authors jumped on the horror bandwagon of the 1980s, so much crap was produced that the field almost sunk under the weight of it. I'm really pleased that many of those people have now "moved on" and left the genre (well, at least until its resurgence again).
This allows the people who are serious about horror, the people who are at least trying to do something interesting and original in the field, to get on with it. It was the major publishers themselves who created this self-prophesied "crash" of the 1990s, and booksellers and readers followed like sheep. Young Adult horror had its time at the top for a while. Now publishers are turning to movie and TV and game tie-ins. That's fine if all you want to be is a hack writer (or, to be fair, if you need to pay the mortgage and put food on the table as a working author). And when that little spin-off genre runs out of steam, then they'll all be scratching around for something else to exploit.
Meanwhile those authors who have remained true to their vision and their careers, and the few editors and perhaps small press publishers who have continued to support them through the rough times, are still doing exactly what they've always done: Writing good, solid horror fiction. Pushing the boundaries of the genre. Do you think someone like Ramsey Campbell or Peter Straub worry about "market forces"? I doubt it. All they are interested in is writing the best fiction they can and getting it out to the widest audience possible. And if that audience is not ready for their work, or is unable to understand it, then that's their loss, not the authors'. Tastes may change, but good writing will always survive in some form.
DE: Yes, but Ramsey and Peter are well established writers who can get their work out to the public. What about writers with vision and talent who haven't a snowball's chance in hell of getting published because they are either new or toooriginal?
SJ: I'm sorry, but nobody can be "too original." If it's good, it will find a market somewhere -- which is why I have the utmost respect for the small presses. They are picking up the slack (as they always have), they are the ones who are publishing some of the most interesting (and attractive) books in the field at the moment. I find myself working more and more for small press publishers and finding the whole process a lot less stressful than having to deal with so-called "mainstream" imprints. I also pride myself on the number of new -- and talented -- authors I try to give exposure to in the books I produce. However, you still have to mix them in with the more well-known names on the contents page or the readers just wouldn't buy the books.
Of course, having said all that, the most cutting-edge series I'm working on is Dark Terrors from Victor Gollancz, a mainstream publisher. I truly believe it pushes the limits of what I've been doing in the horror field with a commercial product. The small presses have allowed me to experiment with more "marginal" projects.
DE: I'll agree that small presses may be the last, best hope for much good fiction these days. Let's just hope enough readers are aware of the books they produce and willing to seek them out for the small publishers to survive. There are wonderful small publishers on both sides of the Atlantic as well as great writers. Which brings me to wonder -- just how does the British horror compare to U.S. horror?
SJ: The glib answer would be "It's better", but that's not strictly true. Ellen Datlow -- an editor who I have the highest respect for -- has complained before that British horror is often too visceral or that she sometimes just doesn't understand it. I think that's great. At our very best, I think we Brits lead the field in quality -- just look at writers like Ramsey Campbell, Michael Marshall Smith, Kim Newman, Clive Barker, Terry Lamsley, Tanith Lee, and all the others. These people have a European sensibility -- a world view that much American horror sadly lacks. That's not to say it doesn't exist in the U.S. -- you only have to look at the work of Dennis Etchison, Peter Straub, Thomas Tessier, Thomas Ligotti, Dave Schow, Caitlin Kiernan and many others to realize that there is not -- and certainly should never be -- simply "British" or "American" horror. The best horror fiction -- any fiction for that matter -- should have an affect on everybody in some way. Unfortunately, far too much American horror fiction is insular to the tastes, emotions and needs of the rest of the world. The same also happens with movies.
DE: I agree with your respect for Ellen, but I disagree that she feels British horror is "too visceral." Although she's said she doesn't care for slice-and-dice horror with no story or not enough story to support the viscera, she has also claimed she's all for viscera -- in its proper place. (Pun intended.) Remember, she published Clive Barker's "Books of Blood" -- his first U.S. magazine publication -- in OMNI.
SJ: Ellen has said this many times on panels with me. And, as you should know, "Books of Blood" is one of Clive's less gory stories.
DE: I think we have some definition problems here -- but instead of debating what we mean by "visceral," let me disagree with you on something else. You said, "The best horror fiction...should have an affect on everybody in some way." I think "horror" is a big tent with different writers appealing to different tastes -- even when considering the "best." Some people don't like vampires, some do. Someone who likes Joyce Carol Oates may not like Caitlin Kiernan, although they both tend to have a gothic base for their work. You just mentioned someone not always caring for the visceral, for example. One of my favorite writers is John Shirley, who tends to be a very "American," original, and often visceral writer. I don't expect everyone to react to his fiction as I do, nor do I think someone who enjoys Clive Barker is necessarily going to like Tanith Lee.
SJ: Of course, that's your (and everyone else's) choice. And as I said, some writers are quintessentially British or American. This is not a bad thing. But it might explain why some books work better in different markets (which is what you originally asked me). Of course different types of books work on different kinds of audiences. My comment was that, in my opinion, many European writers bring a broader view and sensibility to their work. Would you rather produce an interesting Art movie that will reach a limited, but dedicated audience, or some pap TV movie that will reach millions...? That's what you have to ask yourself as a writer these days.
DE: There are certainly differences in what sells. Some Americans -- like Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum, and Melanie Tem -- seem to do better in England than on their home turf. James Herbert, who, although immensely popular in England isn't that big here. Any theories?
SJ: Without mentioning any names, the reason that some American writers work better overseas has more to do with a good agent or clever marketing than any skill they may possess. Just because it's a good book doesn't necessarily mean that it will sell, but a bad book with a big advance and a reasonable publicity budget stands a far better chance of getting onto the bestseller lists.
James Herbert writes quintessential English horror stories -- just like Stephen King writes quintessential American horror fiction. That's why Jim's books are so successful here (and in so many other countries). But then, of course, so are King's. Perhaps American readers are not so quick to understand or develop an interest in other cultures?
DE: Americans aren't that interested in their own culture, let alone others. They do seem to like horror, though, as do the English. I know there is some appreciation of horror in Germany, but I'm not sure that you find the desire to read it as strong in other cultures, say, Sweden or Japan or even France. Maybe horror -- as literature-- is not universal?
SJ: Of course horror as literature is universal! It's just that the things that scare us are not necessarily universal. Each culture has its own distinct demons and bogeymen. They do not always work outside of those cultures that created them. That doesn't diminish their power. Something that scares me might not scare you, and vice-versa. That's what we have to always remember as writers and editors. As I said before, the most successful horror fiction (although not necessarily the best) must have that ability to appeal to the widest-possible audience.
DE: As long as we are talking about "success" -- you've credited your success as having "more to do with chance and good fortune than any talent" and acknowledged your talents have been honed by knowing some of the great writers of the past. You also "grew up" with a number of authors. I think your intelligence, taste and skill have a great deal to do with it, but your "connections" did help. Who were these writers and how did they influence you?
SJ: Anyone can edit a book. Anyone can write a novel. Anyone can direct a movie. However, not everyone can do it well. You must know what has been done before and you must know what is currently happening in the genre when you are putting together a collection of stories. The rest is just personal taste.
I started going to conventions in the early 1970s. One of the first writers I met was Ramsey Campbell. He introduced me to other writers. Karl Edward Wagner did the same for me in the US. When David Sutton and I decided to launch Fantasy Tales in 1977 because there were so few markets for short fantastic fiction at that time, I contacted those people I had met and got to know at conventions. I literally "grew up" with people like Ramsey and Karl, Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, Brian Lumley, Manly Wade Wellman and others, and they introduced me to other writers. When I made the move into professional publishing, those relationships continued.
DE: How did you first get interested in horror?
SJ: I came in the same way as many other people of my generation: In the mid-1960s I was reading and collecting DC and Marvel Comics, from there I moved on to the movie monster mags -- Famous Monsters of Filmland, Castle of Frankenstein etc., and from those I started to pick up books by Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and others.
By the late 1960s I was hooked on all forms of imaginative fiction, and from there it was only a short leap into discovering fandom and doing it myself.
DE: Then you were basically a "fanboy" in your early twenties, who met the right people and started (with the more experienced David Sutton) your own zine?
SJ: I think that anybody who knows me would laugh at the "fanboy" description! I simply enjoyed these kinds of books and movies. Dave Sutton and his wife Sandra were also amongst those first people I came into contact with in the field, and through their involvement in the British Fantasy Society, I found myself writing for and editing various BFS magazines.
DE: I've never seen Fantasy Tales. What was it like?
SJ: I was editing the British Fantasy Society's journal Dark Horizons, and I suggested to Dave that we start our own magazine of short stories and art -- a little bit of Weird Tales, a little bit of Whispers, and a little bit of us. We asked a number of authors -- Michael Moorcock, Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, Kenneth Bulmer -- to donate stories to the first issue, and with great kindness they did. We also got art from such people as Jim Pitts, Alan Hunter, David Lloyd and others. I typed it up on a IBM electric typewriter and cut and glued the pages together. The first four issues had color photocopied covers (pretty innovative at the time) and were perfect bound. Then we switched over to staples and spot-color until the final six issues went with full-color glossy covers.
We started paying contributors a (small) fee from the second issue onwards, and I was always delighted and surprised at the number of big names who wanted to work with us and the newcomers who we managed to give early exposure to in our pages. We also won quite a few awards for it, which was also nice.
Unfortunately, it was just the two of us (and the occasional proof reader) doing all the work. It was hard work and we couldn't keep it up, and so we decided to quit after seventeen issues. It was later revived as a paperback by Robinson/Carroll & Graf, but I was never really happy with those volumes as we always had to compromise with the publisher.
DE: Even though you were editing and publishing, writing book and film reviews, doing interviews, and the like -- you had a career (making real money) as a television producer and director, making commercials, and sales-aid films. How did you turn a hobby of loving horror (as many do who devote so much time and effort to doing magazines and writing and all) into a career (which hardly anyone does.)
SJ: I was made redundant! Actually, what happened was that I got the job as Unit Publicist on Hellraiser, a little low budget film that my friend Clive Barker was making in London, just up the road from where I lived. At the time I was a partner in a television production company in a very up-market area of London. I took a few months off to work on Hellraiser and when I returned I discovered the company was filing for bankruptcy. They owed me quite a bit of money as well.
I realized this was a turning point. What did I want to do with my life? Did I really want to film cans of beans and vasectomies for the rest of my life, or did I want to take a chance and work in the field I loved. I decided to go for the latter choice, but although I've achieved many of the things I wanted to, I still wonder a decade later if I made the right decision. I'm not sure my mother thinks I did!
DE: I think you made the right decision, especially in view of your work as an editor. Do you consider yourself a "hands-on" editor? Do you work with your authors much?
SJ: I very much consider myself a "hands-on" editor. I'll often work through several drafts of a story with a writer before I accept it. Usually, they seem happy to work with me and the story is invariably better for the collaboration. If we happen to disagree over something, then we can usually work it out. I'm something of a perfectionist (given the time and budget) and so I also try to be "hands-on" about the design of a book, the jacket blurb, publicity, and other elements. Some publishers don't like that, but the ones who agree to work with me will probably admit that it's a better package for my imput. Which is why I like working with the smaller presses who are willing to take the time to listen. I have been doing this for quite a long time now.
DE:What is the essence of editing for you? How do you view your role?
SJ: Quite simply, editing is knowing what you want. And if your views are the same as the authors' and the readers' then you're considered a good editor. It really is that simple. Because I had read widely in the field, I knew who and what I wanted. I then treated every book like a "production" -- as an editor I "directed" the book: I "cast" the authors, I collected together the correct types of stories (or "scenes"), and put them together in a certain order to create the maximum impact (just like an "editor"). I take great care over the entire "package" of my books -- from cover art to blurbs to page layout to marketing. Unfortunately, many publishers don't share my enthusiasm or work ethic.
DE: So, work ethic and all, in your mid-thirties you established yourself in both film work and book editing and have been at it ever since. You're now getting close to your mid-forties you are busier than ever. You've said." Twenty years ago I had three simple ambitions: to see an illustration of mine on a dustjacket; to see my byline on the spine of a book; and to see my name on the credits of a motion picture. I accomplished all three some time ago." In our forties we often abandon our dreams or find new ambitions. What about you, Steve?
SJ: I've produced fifty books in nine years. I've worked on several motion pictures. I've written countless thousands of words. If I died tomorrow I would be content. I'm very proud of pretty much all that I've accomplished in this field. I'm honored to have met and worked with some of the best people in the genre.
But there's always more you can achieve. I have nine new books out this year, several articles and introductions, and I've been co-ordinating the World Fantasy Convention in London. I live and breath horror fiction every hour of the day. That's just how my life is. I've grown to accept that. But the older I get, the more I worry that I can't keep that kind of pace up for another decade. I tried working for a publisher and although I was very pleased with the list I produced, the experience was one of the most depressing of my life. So for now I'll continue editing new anthologies, writing books about movies and TV, and developing multi-media projects with my business partner Michael Marshall Smith under our Smith & Jones banner.
I'm very proud when I look at the shelves of my books and I think: "If it wasn't for me, then most of these titles wouldn't exist." I still get a buzz out of being nominated for awards. But the best thing is when I come across a new writer or a new story that really impresses me. Then I remember why I put myself through all this. Why I put up with the incompetence of certain publishers, designers, publicists, booksellers and all the other people who can sabotage your project between concept and completion. That realization and all the friends I've made along the way are what keep me going.
I truly believe that, at its best, horror fiction is one of the most challenging and exciting fields of literature to work in. And I still think I have something to offer the genre. That's why I think it's worth persevering. I can only hope that others agree with me.