Cook on New Zealand Horror
Today, in the aftermath of my trip to StokerCon, I am talking with William Cook, founder of New Zealand Horror Writers.
Welcome William! Give us your personal definition of horror. How would you describe it: blood curdling spatter, or through the looking glass, darkly?
I’m not sure my personal definition of horror is different than standard definitions, but here goes: Horror, in its many guises ‒ fiction, cinema, real events ‒ is a highly subjective phenomena directly related to the individual’s own interpretation of things that inspire fear in the imagination. Fear is the greatest component of horror as an experience. The fear of losing one’s life, the fear of someone close to you losing their life, the fear of a threat that borders on the incomprehensible . . . and so on. Horror is an experience that builds in the mind with the enormity of its potential effect on the individual. It is apprehension that builds terror in the imagination, to the point where madness threatens to eclipse the fear with the suffocating and sublime realisation that our greatest fear is real and present. The imagination is a huge determining aspect of the scope of the horror experience; and an essential ingredient that must be considered when writing horror or portraying it [horror] cinematically. If the author cannot engage the reader’s imagination, to the point where the reader can visualise and emotionally trigger their own fears in response to what is in front of them, then the author cannot hope to instill fear and thereby ‘horror’ in their writing. As Arthur Conan Doyle suggested: “Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.”
Good, well-crafted, horror must create an emotional response in the reader that both engages and triggers an emotional and intellectual response. It is not enough to bombard the reader with ‘gore for gore’s sake’ or gross depictions of violence without basis or necessity as part of the story – horror, must build to the point where it is inescapable, where the reader has not become de-sensitised to the point where at the intersection of plot, action and narrative, they feel nothing. It is in the apprehension and the emotional interplay of fear where the best horror lurks. It is a rare skill for an author to be able to build an experience of horror, which gains purchase via the reader’s subjective experience of fear; that triggers a deep intellectual response which, whilst frightening, also provides an element of resolution or satisfaction in the experience. The confrontational aspect of horror fiction (and film) can either harm or heal depending on how it is done. For example, I distinctly remember, after reading Stephen King’s The Shining, the thrilling but exhaustive feeling that coursed through me as I put the book down for the last time. The story replayed in my mind and my heart beat rapidly as I marveled at the effect that the book had on me. Tied in with my emotional response was a sense of accomplishment: that I had got all the way to the end of this massive book, that I had confronted all the terrible ghosts that haunted the Overlook Hotel, that I had battled the demonic hedge-maze monsters and that I had survived the worst monster of all, the frightening and all-too-human monster, Jack Torrance. It wasn’t a quick read, it didn’t have an abundance of gore and gross-out violence, and the horror experience wasn’t completely realised until the final chapter where it seems as though everything has worked out well for Halloran, Wendy and Danny after the tragic death of Jack and the destruction of the hotel. There is that lingering sense that beneath the surface, beyond the brightness of those who ‘shine on’, the darkness threatens to return. So, in light of my own personal opinions about horror, you have probably guessed by now that I prefer ‘quiet horror’, the kind that creeps up on you for maximum sublimity. I also like reading more visceral and extreme horror by authors like Edward Lee and Jack Ketchum, but I don’t get the same response to it as I do with more subtle and intricately crafted works like King’s The Shining, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, or Ghost Story by Peter Straub.
In many countries, genre fiction is considered the stepchild to mainstream literature, and horror even more so. Do you think this true of New Zealand? [And what can we do?]
Mention NZ Horror and most people would cite Peter Jackson as being its main proponent. Indeed, the history of NZ Horror is evident in a relatively short film history dating back to the late ‘70s, but not so in the history of our literature. Examples of works exhibiting various tropes and themes found in international mainstream horror fiction can be traced back through select works by some of NZ’s leading writers of their day. The likes of past (and present) NZ literary notables: Maurice Gee (Under the Mountain, and Firestarter), Ronald Hugh Morrieson (The Scarecrow), and Katherine Mansfield (The Daughters of the Late Colonel). All had elements of the horrific in their work, usually of the quasi-gothic variety with dark and ghostly romanticised scenes. Indeed, many of New Zealand’s leading fiction authors have been noted as having various ‘dark’ themes, a synchronicity shared with our cinematic productions. Much has been made of the Kiwi Gothic, but usually only in reference to film in this country:
The Kiwi Gothic constructs New Zealand not as a place of some pastoral idyll but rather as an environment where danger and horror lurk everywhere. The Antipodean gothic is generally considered to be an expression of the settler anxiety that derived from the confrontation with a hostile and alien environment, such as the native New Zealand bush. Unlike the European gothic, which often tells ghost stories set in old castles, the Kiwi version of the gothic often deals with alienation, family traumas and uncanny experiences in very familiar places.
The concept of Kiwi Gothic in NZ cinema can be quite easily aligned to our fiction. The same characteristics and tropes are readily available in most contemporary NZ fiction. Unfortunately, the best and brightest of New Zealand authors of dark genre fiction have found more success overseas than here in our own country. I don’t even think that the literary elite of this country even consider horror to be a literary genre, let alone a part of the NZ literary canon and in some ways they would be correct. We don’t really have a firm tradition of stereo-typical horror fiction being written in this country (or at least being set here in NZ). I can’t recall ever reading or seeing a book written by a New Zealander about werewolves, zombies or vampires, roaming about our green countryside. Most NZ authors (myself included) of horror, seem to understandably appeal to a greater international audience, rather than a small regional one where the best-seller lists are populated by sports biographies, cooking books and the occasional historical drama. It is almost too hard to break into the restrictive NZ literary market as a horror author, let alone an independent writer of the dark stuff. Any author of dark fiction who seems to be moderately successful, has achieved that success outside of the NZ market. There are a few exceptions, such as the brilliant and dark works of Mike Johnson (Dumb Show, and Travesty), paranormal author Eleanor Gill and the dark fantasy works of Elizabeth Knox, and then there are the crime fiction authors who write gritty thrillers such as Paul Cleave, Ben Sanders and Vanda Symons, but even then these authors mostly achieved their initial successes on international best-seller charts.
The only way works of horror can be accepted as a viable New Zealand genre, is if the reading public accepts them, seeks them out and purchases them on a regular basis through regional distribution channels, which also sell other NZ books. If the reader buys one of these hypothetical books knowingly; that is, knowing that it is a New Zealand horror story, it is advertised as such and appeals because of its genre basis, then we are halfway there. If enough local readers order said NZ horror books, then a channel will be created due to popular demand, but until there is enough of a trend in the fickle NZ book-buying market place, the main route for books of this nature will be either through savvy local suppliers and/or authors who know how to market on a regional level. Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, the market-place is so much bigger internationally that it does not make much financial sense to sell books locally, as so much still needs to be done to create awareness AND demand, for our particular genre. Because these distribution channels are currently so tightly controlled by a select network of suppliers and publishing houses, it is extremely difficult for small players to meet the same demands of a reading public who have settled largely for whatever is placed before them as representative of our literary culture and what is seen to be of the most popular appeal. Read: what will sell the most.
This also implies, that if an author (of horror) is not published by one of the main traditional publishing companies in NZ, then their chance of acceptance by the literary community (including readers) is very slim indeed. The horror genre has always had a certain amount of stigma attached to it anyway, no matter what country it is from. I think a large part of the problem for horror authors trying to get a foothold in the NZ market, is that we are comparatively such a small market-place. The fact that international statistics generally show that the horror genre is near the bottom in terms of sales and readership, also betrays the fact that when you transfer those same stats to the NZ market it is even less. The NZ reading public has a propensity for non-fiction which is our biggest seller according to recent surveys[i]; this fact alone makes the possibility of success, with one of the least popular genre-types, a rare thing indeed and is no surprise to those of us who have tried to get horror works published in this country. Thankfully, there have recently been a few small publishing houses who have started publishing dark fiction here. Independent publishers like Paper Road Press and Steam Press are producing quality horror/dark fantasy titles, but also carry other slip-stream genre titles due to necessity (I presume). Horror, will probably never be the bread and butter of NZ publishing unless it also serves an international market (especially digital). Although, in saying that, with an ever-increasing population and small enclaves of writers of dark fiction popping up around the country; potentially, it could be a growth market with the right marketing and distribution network, but in my opinion would need a pioneering publishing company (or author) to take the reins and drive quality works of dark fiction to market in a sustainable and stimulation manner.
What can be done in the future, to open the market-place for NZ authors of dark fiction? Authors need to stand up and take hold of the reins and write distinctly New Zealand horror and not be afraid to be pigeon-holed as horror authors. Perhaps, Elizabeth Knox has been the leading proponent of this attitude – she has written publicly of her love of the horror genre and the influence it has had on her own work. Knox’s novel Wake could be seen as a prime example of what a good NZ horror novel should be:
1.) It is set in New Zealand
2.) It is written in a distinctly New Zealand vernacular
3.) it is pitched at the New Zealand reading public as a horror novel and,
4.) it has been accepted by the New Zealand reading public as a reasonably popular choice at the time of publication.
The New Zealand Listener even noticed this point of difference in Knox’s work, compared to the majority of NZ fiction that is usually classed as literary fiction:
Elizabeth Knox has long shown a studied indifference to those readers (and critics) who demand a strict separation between genre and literary fiction, to the benefit of both.
The same critic, Craig Ranapia, goes on to astutely point out that:
Horror fiction – and that’s what Wake splendidly is – will always be the red-haired stepchild of that already disreputable literary clan, genre fiction. How could it be otherwise? No matter how popular horror fiction is, those who trade in knowing what we most deeply fear, and why, are never entirely welcome guests.
And it is perhaps in this last statement that the answer to Lee’s question lies; like an undead zombie caught in a perpetual state of ‘dead-alive,’ the horror genre (New Zealand or otherwise), is always attempting to rise above the hubris that keeps it buried on the literary outskirts of acceptable mainstream popular fiction.
Poetry has always been a means of addressing our personal demons. Does this mean dark poetry is more likely to gain wider readership? What has been your experience with your volume Corpus Delicti?
No, not at all. ANY type of poetry, dark or otherwise, only appeals to a very limited market. Despite dealing with subjects many other poets choose to ignore, dark poetry has a very select readership and in my experience is not widely read, let alone understood. Once again, because the horror genre has such a small slice of genre sales ‒ unless it is rebranded as something else like Stephen King’s works ‒ it stands to reason that dark/horror poetry has an even smaller slice of that same pie. Dark poetry is a great way to confront issues and fears from the writer’s perspective, but depending on the tastes of the reader of verse, the appeal is limited by both the formal aspects of the poetry and the scope of the subject matter and the way it is transcribed. Most people find poetry tough-going at the best of times, especially poetry that doesn’t operate on a simplistic, superficial level. Poetry that deals with difficult themes and is technically adept and intellectually complex, will always only appeal to a select few and usually then, only other poets or academics who do nothing else but study the form and technique of poetry. That is, it seems to ‘take one, to understand one.’ If, for example, you are a poet who does not write in traditional forms and who doesn’t employ conventional rhyme schemes, then your audience will be limited once again, as opposed to the poet who writes ‘sing-song’ verse where everything rhymes to the point where the poem just becomes a cliché or facsimile (style-wise) of gothic poets like Edgar Allen Poe, and reeking of imitation.
Personally speaking, I don’t like contemporary rhyming verse, and almost always prefer a free-verse style that allows the poet to tell a story, as much as describe something in an aesthetic manner. Poetry brought me to short fiction and short fiction to long-form narrative and for that reason I feel it is important for me, as a writer, to continue to practice the craft of poetry to complement my fiction writing skills. To be able to write succinctly and with impact and meaning is a skill I learned from years of writing poetry and I guess without having that vent of creative expression, my personal demons would have existed more off the page than on. So, yes, I have addressed and entertained many personal experiences and imaginations with my poetry but unless a reader identifies with my experience ‒interspersed with literary style, technique and the ‘meaning’ I want to imply and reveal ‒ then it really has no appeal to a wider readership. Many readers weave their own experiences and meaning into the poems and I love that and it is something I aspire to achieve with my poetry: that it will at least invoke a response or provoke the imagination on some level with the reader. I am currently working on a new collection, titled Beyond the Black Gate which is deliberately written in a confessional style that focusses on a single subject in order to solicit identification with the reader. The collection deals with the topic of depression. The Black Gate is a play on the conventional use of the Black Dog as a metaphorical symbol/mascot for depression. Here is the first poem which is written in a loose traditional form (sonnet) and with a subtle rhyme scheme, but also written in a contemporary manner:
Black Gate Sonnet
This is no ‘Black Dog’; such an animal
does not exist. This curse names of itself
The Black Gate – it’s mind is all of its own
a sentry of pain guards one’s mental health
permitting entry to none but the self
once inside, the gate is closed until death –
comes calling, or the night grants some respite
as black mists swallow the heart’s shallow breath
and the dark veil envelopes the sick mind
shutting out the world’s grim realities,
and once again the Black Gate covets time;
imprisoned life, jailed so mercilessly.
Deep inside, the mind heals slowly until inured
out the Black Gate goes, the self, degrees improved.
There are two main reasons for my use of a semi-traditional style or form in the lead poem. For me, poetry always follows and builds upon tradition and the canon which comes before – mainly because poetry has existed for centuries and most human subjects and experience have been written of previously, by far greater poets than myself. I am a big fan of Shakespeare and Donne’s sonnets and usually model any poems in the sonnet form on a select example by one of these two greats. I do so as a nod to my heroes and also just to leave readers in no doubt, that what they are about to read is poetry and, hopefully, intellectually and aesthetically challenging poetry that will demand they at least know how to read poetry. Once the initial poem is read, then I switch predominantly to the free-verse style I championed above. The stories begin, imbued with all the tropes and technique used in traditional verse forms, but written in a contemporary narrative style. I love using metaphor, simile, analogy, and allegory amongst other poetic devices. I also love cryptography and often hide words and secret anagrams in my verse, in the hope that an astute reader might break the code and reveal another layer of meaning that enlarges the scope of the poem. Sometimes, I also like to subvert the process and add archaic terminology or foreign phrases to reference another (usually classic) poem within the free-verse contemporary form. The collection essentially relays my own experience of depression, with a selection of poetry that deals with the dark side of this disease of the mind and also the light that comes after the darkness has gone. The verse is not horror poetry per se but it deals with fundamental human experiences of dark themes related to the depressive state. Hopefully, it might resonate with someone else who suffers from the same malady and, at the end of the day, it will be a cathartic experience for myself upon completion.
If you were stuck with [insert name of favourite international horror writer] in an elevator, what is the one thing you would hope they would take away about New Zealand horror.
Interesting question. Of course, it would have to be the ‘king of horror’ – Stephen King – trapped in the elevator with me. I would hope to convince him that New Zealand was a highly literate culture, with the gothic underpinnings of a dark and tumultuous colonial and cultural history that readily lent itself to producing fine works of literature that employ the genre tropes and practices of the best horror writers. That we are growing, not just in terms of population but in terms of ideas and the scope of our realisation, that we can indeed be top players in an international market place. That we have a distinct voice (when we are not afraid to use it) and that that voice is unique and distinctive and interesting to the rest of the world, if done properly. I would suggest he looks at the landscape and the people in order to understand our literature and to see the dynamic potential of future works of dark fiction, set in such a dramatic and sublime environment.
You’re overnighting in a crypt with only one candle, what book are you reading?
The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe.
Can you name some Kiwi horror talent we should have on our radar right now? Anyone coming through the ranks who we should note?
A hard question merely by the fact that my recommendation is only as good as my reading experience. I’m sure that there are NZ authors of horror who I am not aware of and who I have not read and if you are out there, please accept my personal invitation to join my Facebook group: NZ Horror Writers. Okay, well the ones I have read and enjoyed are as follows: Tim Jones (Extreme Weather Events, Landfall and Transported) although he’d probably suggest his work was more speculative fiction than horror. Cat Connor (her Byte series especially), Gary Cross (Borderland), Paul Haines (deceased – The Last Days of Kali Yuga) and Paul Mannering (Tankbread series) to name a few. I’ve also heard that a recently released book called Into the Mist is a terrifying read by a talented New Zealand author, goes by the name Lee Murray – you might’ve heard of her [wink]. Unfortunately, I wish I could give you more names of new talent writing horror in New Zealand but I have yet to read/hear of them.
Aw thank you. [Blushes]. Moves on. You’ve written a book on self-publishing, advising writers about building their platforms. Any special tips for horror writers?
Most of what I have learned about self-publishing, outside of my own experience, has been from my interactions with writers who have successfully achieved best-seller status as independent authors. I’m not sure I can offer any advice for horror writers specifically, but for all indie/self-published authors – having your own website is a no-brainer. Even a blog will do, where you can list your books with live links so that your readers can purchase them and where you can build an email list for future promotions and interactions with your readers. There are a whole bunch of things you can do to promote yourself, but perhaps the best piece of advice I can offer is to find a mentor or role-model. Someone who is where you want to be and who is happy to share advice on how to get there. After interviewing over fifteen successful authors who have been able to maintain financially viable existences as full-time writers, key commonalities stand out. In the first volume of Secrets of Best-Selling Self-Published Authors I analysed the interviews and compared answers so that I could summarise the best practices of each and all of the interviewees. My best advice would be to do your homework and take advice from those who have actually achieved best-seller status (if that’s where you want your writing to take you) and, perhaps most importantly, enjoy what you do, don’t give up, and build your passion so that even if you don’t earn the big dollars, you’ll have a damn good time along the way. If you are interested in what the top-dogs have to say about their self-publishing adventures, you can buy a copy of Secrets of Best-Selling Self-Published Authors here. Also, all the interviews are available via my new website where you can also download a cheat-sheet that will help you boost your online presence and sales efforts.
Your worst fear? Is it a feature of any of your own work?
Sharks give me the heebie-jeebies and no, I seem to have avoided them in my work to date.
Work you’re most proud of and why?
I guess Blood Related because I have invested so much time in doing it properly and tweaking it to be the best it can be as my flag-ship publication. I am also really proud of Fresh Fear: Contemporary Horror, which I edited and compiled. It was a real learning curve putting together this anthology and put me in the position of being able to connect and communicate with some great writers that I have looked up to for so long. Authors like Ramsey Campbell, J.F. Gonzalez and Charlee Jacob to name a few. I have just recently received the rights back and will be republishing a new edition with a new cover and new lay-out, so I am looking forward to being able to give it a new lease of life and continue to promote the authors included.
I have read Fresh Fear. That is one scary book! So what’s on your horizon? Any new projects?
Lots of things. I always have at least two projects on the go at any given time. As mentioned, I am working on a new collection of poetry titled Beyond the Black Gate; I am also working on a sequel to Blood Related which is looking on track for a December release all going well. I have a few other projects that will keep me very busy until the end of the year and should be able to maintain a steady publication schedule throughout the remainder of 2016 into 2017. A new collection of short (dark) fiction is nearly complete, as is a collection of miscellaneous multi-genre fiction, tentatively titled ‘Quirks’ – both of which should be published before Christmas. To stay tuned for details, please subscribe to my website. For a limited time I am giving away a free digital edition of my collection, Dreams of Thanatos to new subscribers here. You can also follow me on Amazon to get regular updates whenever I release a new book. Thanks for the great interview, Lee.
Thanks for stopping by William!