LJ Talks to Horror Writer Stephen Graham Jones, Author of 'Don’t Fear the Reaper'

Stephen Graham Jones is the best-selling author of nearly 30 novels and collections, as well as novellas and comic books. The most recent is My Heart is a Chainsaw. Up next are Earthdivers and Don’t Fear the Reaper. Jones lives and teaches in Boulder, CO. He talks with LJ about his newest book, the genre as a whole, and his influences.

Stephen Graham Jones is the best-selling author of nearly 30 novels and collections, as well as novellas and comic books. The most recent is My Heart is a Chainsaw. Up next are Earthdivers and Don’t Fear the Reaper. Jones lives and teaches in Boulder, CO. He talks with LJ about his newest book, the genre as a whole, and his influences.

You’ve won numerous awards and been on best seller lists, but you are, by no means, an overnight success. What has this experience over the last few years been like for you as a writer and a human?

The questions I get asked in interviews aren’t so much “Why do you like horror?” or “What’s with all the blood and guts?”—all these are really just trying to kindly phrase the real question: Why are you so weird?—but something more like “How does horror engage the world of today?” That question gets asked in all kinds of creative ways, but it usually boils down to that. And that’s great, of course, simply because it’s not “How can horror engage the world?” Asking it like that would mean that horror’s not currently doing that. But we all know it is, and that it has been, and that it’ll keep doing that. So, I like that horror’s not having to jump that initial hurdle so much, anymore. That we’re more dealt-in than we might have been before. Just, what we have to be wary of now is respectability, right? Respectability’s the worst. Best to be the gadfly, transgressing, challenging, poking and prodding, and leaving bloody footprints in the hallway, for readers to wake up to.

One of your awards, in particular, took you outside of genre confines and opened up your work to a larger audience. What did it mean to you to win the prestigious Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award for The Only Good Indians?
First, it was just an amazing surprise. Of all the genres, horror’s the one that’s historically been left out of contention. But this isn’t then, this is now, and the audience has become aware of horror in a new way—I mean, the audience who hadn’t had a taste for horror, so much, they’re kind of peeking through the flap of this nightmare carnival we’ve been throwing. They hear the screams from inside the tent, I guess? The laughter? They see us walking around the literary circus with these smiles on our faces, and so they follow us to where we come from, to see where the fun is. Granted, horror often paints smiles on creatures that have sharp teeth and hungry eyes, but that’s a big part of the fun. 

Why are your books and horror in general gaining so much mainstream attention right now? What about this genre do today’s reader’s find so appealing?

There’s so much impossible stuff happening in the world today that the genres that inhere the fantastic maybe seem a little less distant? A little less impossible? As in, the ecosphere seems to be in slow, and not so slow, collapse. The pandemic is trying to become endemic. World leaders are comporting themselves in monstrous ways. Public spaces, and the people in them, are getting shot up. None of this is easy to make sense of. But? What horror can provide are similarly scary experiences with distinct beginnings, middles, and ends. So, to a world that feels perpetually stuck in the middle of the horror, the idea that there’s an end down there somewhere—just a speck of daylight at the end of this long, dark tunnel—well, that can kind of be consoling, can’t it? Horror can provide that. Just, there’s a price, too: your sleep. But better to worry about monsters scratching their claws on your window than important people with their fingers on dangerous buttons.

Don’t Fear the Reaper is book two in what will be a trilogy. What made you want to return to Jade and Proofrock, ID, having only written stand-alones up to this point?

Yeah, it’s a lot different, writing a trilogy. This is my first time to try it. And, since I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer, I had no real idea what was going to happen in Don’t Fear the Reaper until it was happening on my screen. Same with the third book, which I’m due to write this summer. Hopefully I come up with a title. But, luckily, I’ve already got the place—Indian Lake, Proofrock, Terra Nova—and I’ve already got Jade Daniels, so I bet it’ll work out. As for why do a trilogy instead a stand-alone, though, I wonder if it’s just that I kind of accidentally world-built this place such that the world wasn’t all used up at the end of the first book? There was more story there, just under the water, just across the lake. And I’d feel kind of bad if I didn’t write it down.

I am beginning to see younger writers list you as their influence. What does that mean to you?

What it means, I guess, is responsibility. As in, I have to try to set a good example, be some sort of role model. But, luckily, I’ve had a lot of great role models setting those good examples already. Joe R. Lansdale’s at the very top of that list. You won’t find someone more committed to quality on the page, someone more a student of the form—in his case, forms—and I dare you to find someone with better principles and character than him. Like, a few years ago, I was giving him a ride to his event at Tattered Cover up here in Denver. We’re at this big intersection deep in the heart of five o’clock, stopped right at the front line at a red light, acres of impatient cars stacked up behind us, and this [unhoused] guy’s walking his bicycle through the crosswalk when his knee collapses, and he goes down in front of all this traffic about to launch. Before I could even process what was happening, really, Joe was out of the car, running out into the intersection, and helping this guy the rest of the way across. And? I think a lot of horror writers are like that, really. I mean, maybe because Joe’s been around so long, showing us how to be better, being generous with his time, but I just find horror people to generally be compassionate. Which isn’t to bad-talk writers or fans of any of the other genres. Just, I know horror the best, and horror people. And, finally? Most horror, whatever the subgenre, is finally about resisting bullies, be those bullies aliens, mole men, vampires, goalies, whatever. But engaging so many stories about bullies, I kind of suspect that leaves horror people really tuned in to bullying, in a way that not only can push back against it, but that maybe can even keep it from happening in the first place. So, yeah, what I’m saying is we need to vote a horror fan into the highest office. It could only do the world good.

You are clearly a busy novelist, but that does not stop you from also publishing novellas and contributing short stories to many anthologies such as Other Terrors. What draws you to the different lengths of storytelling as an author? What are the pros and cons to each?
What I love about short stories is that you can hammer one down in an afternoon, and, if it’s not working, you can just throw it away, try again tomorrow afternoon. That’s different from a novel. With a novel, you spend weeks or months or however long at it, and then, if you get to the end and it’s not working, it’s not so easy to throw it away, is it? You want to rehabilitate it, you want to make it work. You want to make the weeks or months you put into it not be all for nothing. Also, it’s just fun to be in anthologies. Stories go different places than novels do, and they reach different readers. Novellas too. I couldn’t be happier that they’ve sort of come back as a form—used to be they were just this story that’s too long, this novel that’s not long enough. But they’re getting respect now. And they’re so fun to write. To me, a novella feels like a feature film in scope, while a novel feels like a season of television. And, keeping with that, I guess a story feels like an episode from an Outer Limits or something. As for what draws me this way or that, it’s often just a matter of what kind of time I have when this or that idea pops. If I’ve got an afternoon, then this’ll likely be a story. If I’ve got a month or two, or can cobble a month or two together from three or four months, then it’s a novel. Novellas, though, for me they’re less about fitting an allotted time, more about intention: you aim longer than a story, but don’t let it grow into a novel, quite.

From your perch on top of the genre today, and also, as an English professor, what are your hopes for horror going into the future?

People keep saying horror’s booming now, that we’re achieving the kind of cultural saturation that we had back in various heydays. And they’re not wrong. But what I hope is that we can somehow avoid that thing that happens when any group or movement or genre gets popular, where we start believing our own hype, and thinking we can do no wrong. I also want horror to continue to innovate, to take chances, to tell stories that aren’t sure things, but that might, if we do them juuuust right, actually work. The other thing I want for horror is for it—for us—to keep finding new and diverse voices. Exclusivity always leaves someone out in the cold, and leaving people in the cold, that’s not horror’s way. We know what’s out there in the darkness, I mean. We can hear the teeth, see the eyeshine. I want us, instead of locking people out, to leave the gates wide open, and then probably just knock the walls down as well, in case anybody can’t find that gate. Then all that’s left is to leave a light on in the window, and have a bowl of something hot waiting. I mean, sure, let’s not tell everybody exactly what meat that is in this stew, but, on a cold night, with friends, does it really even matter?—Becky Spratford

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