DAVID J. SCHOW: Writing Where the Blade Draws the Blood
[Horror] should open the door to the forbidden. It should subvert convention, formula and audience expectation; it should embrace the experimental... horror should not be forced to function as a reliable consumer genre.
by Paula Guran David J. Schow started writing short stories that make one sit up and say, "Whoa!" back in the late seventies. Published in magazines like The Twilight Zone, Whispers and even Weird Tales, his work tended to be what, perhaps unfortunately, later became labeled as
"splatterpunk". (A term, Schow admits inventing, and while sober at that. "I made up the term to describe hyperintensive horror -- the Clive Barker 'there are no limits' variety -- nearly ten years ago, when it mattered. If Stephen King is comparable to McDonald's, then splatterpunk -- in its day -- was akin to certain varieties of gnarly mushroom, the kind that could open new doors of perception, or, in noncompatible metabolisms, just make you puke.") In quintessential splatterpunk style, he published two novels, The Kill Riff (1987) and
The Shaft(1990), full of rock and roll, drugs, and visceral horror--and kickass writing like
the opening to The Shaft:
David J. Schow started writing short stories that make one sit up and say, "Whoa!" back in the late seventies. Published in magazines like The Twilight Zone, Whispers and even Weird Tales, his work tended to be what, perhaps unfortunately, later became labeled as "splatterpunk". (A term, Schow admits inventing, and while sober at that. "I made up the term to describe hyperintensive horror -- the Clive Barker 'there are no limits' variety -- nearly ten years ago, when it mattered. If Stephen King is comparable to McDonald's, then splatterpunk -- in its day -- was akin to certain varieties of gnarly mushroom, the kind that could open new doors of perception, or, in noncompatible metabolisms, just make you puke.")
In quintessential splatterpunk style, he published two novels, The Kill Riff (1987) and The Shaft(1990), full of rock and roll, drugs, and visceral horror--and kickass writing like the opening to The Shaft:
His 50-plus short stories have been translated all over the world. "Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You" won Twilight Zone Magazine's ultra-rare Dimension Award in 1985 and "Red Light" won the World Fantasy Award in 1987. Seeing Red(1990), Lost Angels (1990), and Black Leather Required(1994) collected much of his short fiction.
Schow edited an anthology of film-related horror stories, Silver Scream(1989), which often turns up on horror-lovers' "favorites" lists. His column, "Raving and Drooling," in Fangoria was often the only thing in the magazine worth reading, usually presenting strong opinion on any number of subjects.
He is the expert on the classic SF television series The Outer Limits, and he recently revised his 1986 The Outer Limits Official Companion to add even more to what we thought was everything we needed to know about it.
These days, other than writing the occasional killer short story, Schow has been concentrating on Hollyweird with screenplays for the third Chainsaw Massacre movie, Critters 3 and Critters 4; The Crow, and (currently in production) Dead at 21. He's done a bunch of teleplays, but prefers to mention only the "Red Light" episode of The Hunger (1995) an adaptation of his award-winning short story for Showtime, and the recent "The Exile" episode Perversions Of Sciencefor HBO.
Schow wears an aura of "dangerous guy" as easily as he does a black leather jacket, but once you get to know him you discover he is, like his fiction, intelligent and effective as well.
DarkEcho: Schow, you were once, along with other "newer," more visceral writers, considered something of a threat to "traditional" horror. What I call the "Trad versus Rad" battles were fought. What did you bad boys do differently with horror that so offended everyone?
Schow: Ultimately it is the writing that has to fly or fall down on its own. If I scream "something or other-punk" to make you look at the writing, the writing had better be decent or you'll only look once. It's why Harlan Ellison writes in storefront windows and why the Reform School Riot Grrls of Horror have Web sites. It's all to get you to read the work in a world of options infinitely flashier than reading.
That said, I'd hazard that splatterpunk helped birth the aforementioned Riot Grrls: Poppy Z., Christa, Kathe Koja, Lucy Taylor, Caitlin Kiernan, Yvonne Navarro, Nancy Kilpatrick-that gang. What else significant has grown out of horror in the last ten years? Goosebumps? Please.
DarkEcho: Then give us some idea of "where are we now" and "where are we going" in horror.
Schow: What denotes horror fiction, these days? Bottom-line mediocrity and the vanilla status quo. What exactly is a "horror novel," as we begin 1997? Well, judging from the evidence it appears that a horror novel in 1997 is a dyspeptic trudge about some working stiff or yuppie whose politically and demographically correct life is somehow endangered by a so-called "force of evil," which must be handily banished via ancient rituals--the whole damned thing is a religious parable. Or it is an overblown gothic bodice-ripper tarted up with chic monsters. There are hacks out there who have pooted forth twenty such novels in a row and no one can tell you who in hell they are. What does that leave? It leaves the fringe, the edge, the place you live as a writer if you're a contentious weirdo. Horror will always have its young Turks; it needs them to stay vital in this age of de facto Maalox horror. Or in a political climate that wants to legislate what's acceptably scary. Or in an editorial climate based on fear of stepping over some arbitrary line in the sand.
It is more important than ever for horror fans to re-read Doug Winter's Faces Of Fear, which is now a decade old. That's where horror was ten years ago, in the heartbeat before splatterpunk intruded, to whatever effect. Stephen King was a best-selling writer. Today he's sui generis. Clive Barker was brand-new. Peter Straub was still working on Koko, which is still one of my favorites of his work. Budding horror authors seeking advice should run out right this instant and read Winter's interview with John Coyne as a litmus test for discouragement. He notes, among other things, that publishing has nothing to do with literature, the concept of "talent" is meaningless, "there is no art" in writing horror, and most readers of horror are what he calls "language-deaf." Quoth Mr. Coyne: "The audience that we are writing for is people who cannot read books." He lays it all out in a very concise way, like an autopsy of modern publishing in full color and Smell-O-Vision. Now--does his worldview of publishing depress you, Budding Author? Good. Because it only gets worse; he made these brutally real observations a decade ago--and he was a bestselling writer when he made them!
Someone should get Doug Winter's permission to post that interview; it would be a welcome reality-slap amidst all the chum about conning agents and cadging trophies and will-you-read-my-manuscript. I'm not saying this to wax sadistic. But at some point, people who aspire to write professionally need to get real, and this piece is a good reminder of the type of market to which you are exposing your naked throat. Anybody who can be discouraged from writing should be, if you follow.
The point where the blade draws blood is when you as a writer become more experimental instead of opting for the safety of sawing the same old log. Most people hate being surprised by fiction because they infer from the fact that they were surprised that they must also be unaware or dull. That's why people seek comfort in genre--they want that reliable old vampire story. It may be in suburbia, the street, in Pakistan, or on another planet, but eventually somebody is going to whip out that reassuring silver crucifix, and the reader goes "ahhh," relaxing in the blissful knowledge that the story does not dare to be smarter than he or she is.
One innovation I've noticed in the past couple of years is that horror is breaking out from the adult publishing field--Masquerade Books and such--not the so-called "erotic horror" with the sexist cover art. Usually, adult fiction is classed as pornography and therefore overlooked. Read anything in Amarantha Knight's "Darker Passions" series (she just published a new one based on The Picture of Dorian Grayand I guarantee you'll see something new.
I also just saw Cronenberg's film of Crash, which gives me new hope for the movie medium, as well.DarkEcho: Then, other than adult-oriented fiction, what should horror be these days?
Schow: Character, mood, atmosphere. It should open the door to the forbidden. It should subvert convention, formula, and audience expectation; it should embrace the experimental. I prefer prose that is very layered and has buried treasures. For those reasons and others, horror should not be forced to function as a reliable consumer genre.
There's nothing wrong with people embracing horror as a result of populist potboilers, but there are many rungs on the ladder above that, and it'd be a shame if some new reader just decided the first rung was good enough, and to just repeat that experience over and over, rather than opting to climb.
Horror is about feelings, and so the superstructure of a page-turner plot is not always necessary, and sometimes, imposing such linearity can be damaging. Of course, that's just another view to subvert. Prove me wrong. Do better. And I'll return the favor.
A funny thing happens when writers who have no feeling for character attempt to write "bestselling" horror: You wind up with droning laundry lists of detail, an ensemble composed of imported twitches and tics and clockwork eccentricities: "He was a Gulf War vet with multiple personality disorder, a basenji hound, a glass eye eternally stuck in middle-focus, and a '58 Woodie. He picked up the pepper and examined it. Medium-coarse grind. Probably from a denty red can ...."
The most horrific aspect of this question is that there is no bullet-sized, sound-byte answer. It's complicated. It's worthy, I think, of a whole separate exploration.
DarkEcho: I'll take that as a challenge and a future topic, David. I promise. What do you read in the genre these days, anyway?
Schow: I don't read that much horror fiction these days. I can't. Most of the conventional rack-filler that gets sent my way usually eats the fireplace. It's hard to cut each one even 50 pages of slack, because there are so many of them, and they're all so terminally obvious and leaden: "After centuries of waiting, the evil was awakening again...." One piece of crap I was sent for a blurb wound up in the garbage disposal; it made a most satisfying noise unto the Lord when it died. I discovered that when you grind up this shit it actually exudes an odor like foxed pulp paper--you know, the smell of vintage paperbacks? That's as close as most of these things come to evoking a worthwhile reading experience.
I just finished reading Father And Sonby Larry Brown, which is a nice, tense piece of psychopathology. One book I'll recommend to everybody without hesitation is The Gutenberg Elegiesby Sven Birkerts. Its subtitle is "The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age," and contrary to what that might suggest, it's not some Luddite rant. It is more a book for sampling and browsing, however, than for pounding straight through. It is a very well-observed, thoughtful book in a time when readers don't think enough about what they read.
DarkEcho: Since you obviously are being subtle with us, David, and keeping your opinions low-key, let's get biographical. Tell me how you got started writing? I think your first sale was to Galileo and your expertise with The Outer Limits goes back to The Twilight Zone magazine in 1981?
Schow: I started writing in the most linear, boring, unfiligreed manner possible: butt to chair, fingers to keys, envelopes to post office, wait, sweat, try again. My first fiction sale was to Charlie Ryan at Galileo. My debut shared an issue with other newcomers named James Hogan and Connie Willis.
In 1977, I called Joe Stefano long distance to chat about this series he used to write and produce, a decade and a half earlier The Outer Limits. Flash forward to 1981/82, when I talked T.E.D. Klein into running an article on the show in Twilight Zone Magazine The article became a two-parter...then a four-parter...and finally an eight-part series that ran in TZ for a year and a quarter. By the time the third installment was published, there was a book deal.
I thought I'd said all there was to say about the show in the book, the first edition of which is now a decade old. I was very wrong. I'll probably still be writing about the show in 2007.
Concurrently, then, Ted Klein bought Pulpmeister, my fiction debut in the magazine. I was absurdly proud to notice my issue was the one Carol Serling was clutching during her cameo in the TZ movie. Ted was the first editor to buy from me regularly--the importance of which I can't overemphasize.
DarkEcho: With the exception of the occasional excellent short story here and there like "Refrigerator Heaven" we in the print horror genre haven't seen much from you since 1994's collection Black Leather Required. Shall we start some rumors or do you want to admit the truth as to what you have been doing?
Schow: The principal thing I've been doing is writing movies, which has become the "day job." Most of the eighties were wrapped up in gaining my sea legs in prose; culminating when I had two collections and my second novel all published in 1990. In 1989 I began writing scripts--for the first time--and it's taken most of this decade, so far, to bring that career branch up to speed.
Seeing Red and Lost Angels came out within two months of each other from two different publishers. It's easy to see they are actually one big collection, hinged on "Red Light." Seeing Red was the catch-all book; Lost Angels the more thematically unified book. I wanted to pull the same trick again with a slim companion volume to Black Leather Required: six nonsupernatural horror stories, under the title Look Out He's Got A Knife. For various small-press reasons, Knife collapsed and has now mutated into Collection #4, provisionally titled Crypt Orchids--which I hope will get real sometime in 1997.
DarkEcho: And that's it? Nothing but work work work?
Schow: Right as BLR was coming out, I also spent the better part of a year restabilizing, in the wake of an error I like to call "Dave's Big Soul-Sucking Zombie Mistake." Cancerous relationships tend to stick to the heel of your life, but this one was a pleasure to scrape off. The upside was that I met and married the amazing Christa Faust. We sort of plooked around for a year, buying furniture and kitchenware and stuff. Getting used to the idea of love that wasn't vampiric. She learned to drive--she was a hardcore Bronx pedestrian--and we bought a spiffy new car with blacked-out windows. His and hers shoulder holsters. That sort of mush.
Earlier in 1996 we ran off to Colorado to do cameos in Mick Garris' new version ofThe Shining. We also have an apartment in New York City several blocks from Times Square and try to get there as often as we can.
DarkEcho:True love and the movies...we'll congratulate on the former and pursue the latter. You do a lot of screen work these days and it IS good money, but how do you deal with Hollyweird and the way it treats any creative person?
Schow: The myth is: Hollywood is different from what publishing has presently become. The truth is: same assholes, different venue. More assholes, but more money. My odds on finding a hot, savvy director with whom to work are better than finding a knowledgeable editor in today's publishing climate.
Another point: It's sad, but probably true for most writers that more people will see the worst movie you ever make than read the best book you ever write. The flipside is that some writers can use screenwriting and prose to feed each other, which is what I'm attempting. Respectability in one venue can earn you extra notice or better advances in the other. I never wrote my books to be movies or vice-versa. I recently broke this unwritten rule--finally--when I did an adaptation of "Red Light" for The Hungerseries, which will be a product of Ridley and Tony Scott's Scott Free Productions in 1997...I hope.
As a byproduct of screenwriting, I get to go repeatedly to Sydney, Australia to work with Alex Proyas on new projects. For another recent project I just went first class, for ten days, to Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and back through Tokyo. That, in turn, enriches future prose...so I have few complaints, as weird as it can--and does--get.
Besides, as John Farris says, "Making movies is just more fun."
DarkEcho: Do you want to say anything about how The Crowwas written? One reason this interview came about is that I interviewed John Shirley and asked him to tell his side of the story.You and I started corresponding because Christa read that interview and wanted me to know your position.
Schow: John Shirley and I were friends before The Crow violently blew us apart--mostly a lot of rancor over who wrote what. You, Paula, read my initial attempt to illuminate the timeline and blow-by-blow.
DarkEcho: Yes, David, between you and John I know more about how The Crow was written than perhaps anyone should. Someday I am going to write a movie based on it and neither one of you will be allowed on the set. But, for the record, since Shirley has had his say and people can still read it here on the Web, here's your chance.
Schow: Here are some highlights: Shirley wrote a primordial draft, on spec, I think, adapting the comic for director Julien Temple, the guy who did Absolute Beginners. When Jeff Most sold The Crowto Ed Pressman, Shirley was attached as writer and he did what is commonly known as a "draft-and-set," that is, a draft plus revision plus polish. Between the revision and the polish, mid-1991, Pressman decided to take the material to a new writer, and (his producer) Caldecot Chubb asked me if I would be interested in looking at the source comic book. From September through December of 1991 I did my own draft-and-set, working with Chubb and director Alex Proyas. Shirley was not rehired, although his pal Jeff Most was still "attached"--like a remora--as a titular producer, though Most produced little and was in fact later restricted from the set by Proyas.
Lately there has been some fannish rabble-rousing about who "really" wrote the movie. When Shirley claims he wrote the script, he is right--he wrote the script that convinced the producers not to rehire him, the script that did not get filmed. The script I wrote is the script Proyas and the producers saw fit to present to potential backers. My script got Pressman a studio (first Paramount, later Miramax/Dimension), a secured star, and most important, a start date--that is to say, a green light for production. I wrote the script that got filmed and released. And I got continuously rehired to see the project all the way through principal photography--102 days on location in North Carolina for a 54-day shoot. Pressman promptly asked me to rewrite Shirley's script for William Gibson's The New Rose Hotel. Just a few weeks ago I was asked to rewrite Shirley's adaptation of Robert McCammon's Stinger. Shirley was understandably upset over being shown the door on a movie gig into which his own pal had vetted him.
Then Shirley went ballistic over the Writer's Guild arbitration for credit, unaware, I suppose, that as "first writer" on such a project (especially an adaptation from another medium) he occupied a fairly impregnable position.
DarkEcho: Hold it...we little people usually don't read or hear about arbitrations, and it's fair to assume most OMNI readers don't know how arbitrations work. Please explain.
Schow: "Reading an arbitration" is a process whereby three anonymous members of the Guild review all the screenplay material by each and every writer on a project, and independently judge who should be credited, and in what order. Each writer's personal statement is also taken into account, as are supporting statements filed by anyone relevant to the process, usually producers or directors.
Last year I read an arbitration for a recently released movie that had seven writers all wanting equal credit. Two of these writers were cream-of-the-crop, high-powered script doctors. Another was then-President of the Writer's Guild. This film was a first-class star vehicle--what you would call an "A" picture (I can't spill the title because of Guild regs). And when all the fallout settled, only the first two writers on the project got screen credit. Neither the WGA president nor either of the the high-powered wordslingers got credit. Two candidates didn't even want credit.
Shirley and I did not collaborate. If we had, there would have been an ampersand between our names on The Crow's screen credit, which denotes a writing team, as opposed to the word "and," which denotes writers who worked separately. That's why people need to know about arbitrations. Shirley had left the building by the time I was first called.
Did my version of The Crow resemble Shirley's version of The Crow? Since I did a "page-one rewrite" (i.e., starting over from scratch), any similarities are attributable to the fact they are both derived from the same comic book. If the comic features a fight in an alley, for instance, both screenplays may feature completely different fights in totally dissimilar alleys. But it is always the first writer who accrues the credit for putting any scene into an alley in the first place, which is why I think the arbitration process is slightly medieval. But that's the system as it stands today. Because of it, Shirley got his first screen credit, for which he should be thankful.
Pressman called last week; they want a third Crow movie. They want to obliterate the memory of the smash-flop sequel. I have not seen the sequel and have no desire to. But the franchise rolls on. They announced a TV series. Stay tuned for the animated cartoon. It'd be like Scooby-Doo with black leather and white pancake.
DarkEcho: I don't want to hear more.... So when are we going to read more of your stuff? Whatever happened to the third novel?
Schow: Remember the unwritten rule? My third novel was dragging its balls in prose form, so I wrote it up in screenplay form and it just flew out. The script was ultimately used to generate a lot of editorial heat for the novel, since it's essentially a completed 110-page outline. The script, meanwhile, generated heat on its own. It's a race to see which form will finish first on that project.
Once I put "Raving and Drooling" into cold sleep (about six months ago), I started restocking my short-fiction tank. I promptly sold it all. The stories I wrote prior to that have nearly all been victimized by a publishing lag, in some cases of up to two years. Steve Jones, Ellen Datlow, Poppy Z. Brite, and Doug Winter all bought new stories, two of those, novelettes. More new stories are due out in Larry Flynt's Rage magazine in December, in a new Midnight Graffiti going to press this week, and a chapbook from Necronomicon Press next April. I'm working my way back toward the long formof fiction. I can finish my third novel, some time prior to the millennium, I hope. Or the publication of Doug Winter's anthology, which, because of that silly TV show, might end up featuring a big hieroglyph on the cover, and the subtitle: The Book Formerly Known As "Millennium." Whichever Millennium comes last.
DarkEcho: Actually I think that anthology is supposed to be out next spring or early summer. But by the time people finish reading this interview, Schow, the real millennium may have arrived.