Friday, August 2, 2013

A Word from the Shlocky, Pulp-Writing, Zebra-Striped, Retro-90s Horror Hack

Recently, I've been reading some fan reviews of my novels on Goodreads and other online websites, and I've come to a sobering realization. For the most part, folks enjoy my work... but they don't take it very seriously.

Does this bother me? Maybe a little. I suppose every writer starts out a new novel or short story putting everything they have into it and hoping that their work will gain respect and touch someone in a creative and emotional way. But I reckon when it come down to pleasing horror fans and critics, you can either go in one of two directions. Do you want to be a serious, high-browed author of the macabre or an old-fashioned writer of pulp horror and spooky tall-tales? Do you want to impress readers with your English degree and wow them with your intellectual prose... or do you simply want to have some fun and tell a good story?

According to the majority of those who've read my brand of Southern-fried horror, I fit into the latter catagory.

From a review of my novel, Fear, J.B. says: Every so often, I crave something dumb in my entertainment diet. Not dumb like a Michael Bay movie or "Twilight" or network TV. I said dumb, not worthless. I mean something creatively dumb. Something that lets me give my mind a rest but that doesn't insult my intelligence. I mean dumb as in an all-nite flying saucer movie marathon, an old-school Mack Bolan, or meathead metal. I mean dumb as in early '90s cheap horror paperbacks.

Dumb? This worried me a bit. Is this fella saying that my books are dumb? Worse, is he saying that I'm dumb? That old Irish temper of mine wasn't quite at a boil, but it was starting a slow simmer. Then I continued reading...

About 15-20 years ago, publishing outfits such as Zebra, Leisure, and Pinnacle were the kings of supermarket book racks, carpet-bombing their aisles with goofy vampires, werewolves, demon children, etc. who glared with glowing eyes off foil, cut-out covers that tore nanoseconds after purchase. I bought armloads of the things, along with a big bag of picante Cornquistos (greatest snack food EVAH!) to go along with the junkfood prose. Among the better purveyors of this kind of pulp was Ronald Kelly, the Zebra poor man's version of Joe Lansdale.

Okay, I'll agree with that. The guy knows of what he speaks. Mass market paperback houses such as Pinnacle and Zebra (of which I was sort of an indentured servant of the literary type) did over-saturate the book racks with horror novels, both good and bad, and around the mid-90s, caused an implosion that knocked quite a few writers offf their feet and out of a job... me included. That I was considered to be one of the "better purveyors" of paperback horror during that period is a compliment and anytime I'm compared to Joe Lansdale in any manner, positive or negative, it is a good thing in my book.

Most Zebra writers didn't require a repeat visit. A lot of the books that publisher put out were just plain garbage and contributed to the sinking of the horror market a few years later. Turns out that saturating the shelves with crap was not a good long-term business strategy. But I liked Kelly's books. They were unpretentious, solidly constructed, meat 'n' taters, good 'n' evil horror stories. Kelly isn't likely to win any prizes for his glittering sentences  or his eye-opening insight into the nature of man, but he knows how to tell a story. Too damn many "serious" authors haven't clue No. 1 about the mechanics of plot. I bought all the Kelly books and stashed em away until I'd get my next craving for good dumb popcorn fun.

Okay, this is where the unshakable stigma of being a "Zebra Hack" comes in. Even before the Big Z accepted my first novel, Hindsight, for publication in 1989, they had a shoddy reputation. For two years my agent submitted the book to almost every paperback house in New York City and, after running the course from A to Z, it was finally accepted at Zebra. The acceptance was bittersweet. I was overjoyed  to finally have a publisher, but not so happy that it was Zebra. During the first leg of my horror writing career (I'm currently on the second one) I always felt like horror aficionados and my horror-writing peers regarded me as second-string (or less) because I wrote for Zebra. At the first World Horror Convention, I even had Charles Grant ask me point-blank "Why the hell are you tied up with Zebra? You could do so much better than them!"

I reckon it just came down to this: everyone has to start out somewhere. You do as well as you can with what you have at that particular point in time... and at that point in my wet-behind-the-ears writing career, my only chance at mass market publication was the dreaded Z. So I stuck with them and tried to buck the traditonal Zebra formula. Instead of writing five or six evil child/doll novels in a row, I wrote something different every time. And I fought to retain my Southern identity, even though the folks at Zebra accused me of being too "rural" more times than I could shake a stick at.  I wrote 8 books under the Zebra imprint before the bottom dropped out and they shut down their horror line. I always did my best to be a cut-above the average Zebra author (the way the late, great Rick Hautala did) and, acccording to this particular review, I managed to accomplish that.

J.B. makes another good point here, too. When it all comes down to it, it's all about "telling the story". You can have the most brilliant plot in the history of literary fiction, but if you don't know how to tell the story -- how to invent characters that you genuinely care about and develop situations that are reasonably credible and fun to read -- then your book will have no soul and it will fall flat on its face. I've read a number of books since coming back to the horror genre in 2006 and, for the most part, they were good, solid stories. But more than a few had all the pizzazz and appeal of a techical manual for a toaster, Whenever someone reviews one of my books and uses the term "throwback to the pulp paperback days of the '80s and '90s horror boom", I take it as a compliment. Because that was when the genre was at its pinnacle, in my opinion. That was when everyone involved had an individual voice and style, from Stephen King himself to the lowliest horror hack. And no one seemed to be particularly concerned about sales or popularity. Most of us were just having to much dadblamed fun to care.

In another review, L.W. says: If Stephen King's fiction, by his own admission, is the equivalent of a Big Mac and fries, then Kelly's is most certainly an RC Cola and a Moon Pie.

This classification of "junk food literature" in comparison to, say, "steak & lobster literature" seems to be a recurring theme here. If King is part of that common-man fraternity, then so am I. If fast-paced, adventurous fiction that leans more toward fun and fright than grim intellectualism and unsettling dread, is your cup of tea (or sweet tea, in my case), then I'm your man. More than likely, I won't ever win any major awards for my down-home horror (as of yet, the Stoker folks have neglected to bless me with one of those spooky, little outhouses), but I really don't care. The reward is writing what I want, how I want, and having readers derive some enjoyment from the end result. And, if I accomplish that by using shivers and smiles, then I can punch the ol' literary time clock and feel good about it at the end of the day.


Unknown said...

Big shout out to you, Ronald! It was my pleasure to narrate the audio book of "Unhinged" for Crossroad and Audible. I plan to use the proceeds to pay for my sessions with a psychiatrist now that my nerves are shattered--all your fault, my friend! -- Milton Bagby

Unknown said...

A big shout out to you, Ronald! It was my pleasure to narrate the audio book of "Unhinged" for Crossroad and Audible. I plan to use the proceeds to pay for psychiatric sessions now that my nerves are shattered. All your fault, my friend! -- Milton Bagby