Since Halloween allows us to both revisit and discover what’s what in the horror genre, we thought it apt to seek out Michael Wilson, head of This is Horror, for a chat about the website and podcast’s origins and mission. But in this extensive interview, Wilson also lets us in on what drew him to the horror fiction in the first place – enough to set up his own, regularly updated online tribute to it – and the dynamics of its various sub-genres. He also has some cool book and film recommendations to suit the occasion…
When did you first start developing a passion for the horror genre, and how did this inform the setting up of This Is Horror?
I’m a lifelong horror fan. When I was a child my grandmother used to tell me ‘scary’ stories before I went to bed. These weren’t so much stories from a book but a blend of stories from her mind, urban legends, and folklores. Reality and imagination intertwined so I wasn’t sure what was and wasn’t real. I always preferred scary stories, the rush of adrenaline that a chill can bring, the thrill that comes with the challenge of scaring someone.
Naturally, my favourite amusement park ride was the ghost train – and some of those ghost trains genuinely frightened me, but I’d keep coming back anyway (once I was on a ghost train and it broke down mid-ride, right in front of Dracula). Of course, when I was at school I’d read as much horror as I could, so naturally developed my passion for reading through R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series and anything else frightening. I remember Robert Swindells’ Room 13 was a standout scary story as a child. From there I graduated to the likes of James Herbert and Stephen King.
As a voracious video gamer I remember the feverish excitement I experienced when playing Resident Evil for the first time. That moment, in the mansion, when the hellhounds crash through the window, then the introduction of the hunters and of course the first moment you come face-to-face with those enormous spiders. All of these encounters sent my heart hammering into over-drive, all of these encounters were accompanied by an atmospheric orchestra. Music so apt I had to purchase the soundtrack (and the sequels’ soundtracks) on CD and listen to it again-and-again-and-again.
If Resident Evil was the moment that most wowed me and showed me how tense horror can be, Silent Hill (in the words of Spinal Tap) turned things all the way up to eleven. Resident Evil depicted a zombie-infested mansion, not far removed from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Silent Hill was the embodiment of a nightmare, as if someone was clawing and twisting at your very psyche, turning you inside-out and stamping your face into and beyond the ground. Graduating from Resident Evil to Silent Hill was like listening to Black Sabbath then Celtic Frost.
As with Sabbath and Frost, there’s a hell of a difference, but I wouldn’t like to pick a favourite. Of course if you want a game that feels like a twisted concoction of both you have to pick up The Evil Within (Psycho Break in Japan). It’s as if the team behind Resident Evil made Silent Hill, which in more ways than one is exactly what it is – it’s directed by legendary Resident Evil creator, Shinji Mikami.
Growing up I watched a lot of horror films. Mostly slashers, at first, sometimes at parties, sometimes late at night in a darkened room when I should have been sleeping. Scream was a popular ‘party’ film – and I have a great deal of affection for it – but Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween were my favourites, followed by A Nightmare on Elm Street.
I remember ‘getting the tone’ wrong and choosing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as the film for my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday. My friends weren’t ready for it, didn’t get it, and I’d have been better off selecting something a little more palatable like Scary Movie or I Know What You Did Last Summer. I think most of my teenage friends might have been ‘into’ horror movies more for the nudity than the gore and depravity, should have figured it out, but that’s retrospect for you.
As to how this informed the setup of This Is Horror, having such a voracious passion for horror meant I always gravitated towards the genre and had a thirst to take it beyond a hobby.
Since I was a kid I’ve loved telling stories and playing with words. When I was twelve I wrote a short zombie novel inspired by Resident Evil. Obviously it’s never going to see the light of day and if you were to read it now you’d be able to tell it’s the scribbling of a twelve year old but that was when I really knew I wanted to take things further. I worked on that project, putting it through various drafts, for about three years, before I decided to shelve it and play about with other ideas.
My writing wavered in my sixth form years – you can imagine what other pursuits occupied my mind – but I got back on track at the University of Warwick and studied towards the English Literature and Creative Writing BA (Hons), part of the Warwick Writing Programme. We had some great guest lecturers, including China Miéville who ran an after-hours Weird Fiction Module. There were no degree credits for this module, it was strictly ‘just for fun’, and included texts from the likes of Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen – it was a real ‘who’s who’ of weird fiction.
Immediately following university I wound up working a soul-destroying admin job. I’m not sure how that happened – no one plans for that (just like no one plans to stack shelves in T J Hughes, either, but that was the path one of my Uni friends took).
I was part of the generation that was told to dream big, that we could become whatever we wanted whether that was an astronaut, rock star, the prime minister, you name it. Then the recession hit and everything went to shit. The goal posts shifted and everyone wound up depressed. That’s life, right? I’d worked hard through school, somehow managed to score straight As at A-Level, put in a decent innings at University, too, between the obligatory debauchery.
So I found myself in this office job asking what went wrong and what I was going to do about it to turn things around? That was the right question. Problem is I hit the wrong answer, “well I might as well take a Graduate Diploma in Law, become a lawyer and earn as much money as I can.” Off I went. One miserable year later and thousands of pounds lighter I struck another answer. “Follow your passion not the pay cheque.” I was onto something.
It was funny how quickly I started doing what I actually wanted to, instead of doing what I thought society wanted me to do, and funny, also, how much happier it made me. I wrote to my favourite heavy metal magazine (still is), Terrorizer, and made enquiries into taking on an internship. I spent two weeks there, met some of the coolest people in the world (and that’s just the staff), got to sit-in on an interview with Vinnie Paul (Pantera) and interview the guys from Orange Goblin, and on-top of all this bagged myself some freelance work post-internship. This was definitely the right path. (As an adjunct to all this that same summer I’d turned around my physical health and gone from debilitating arthritis and pharmaceutical drug-dependency to pain-free and twenty-six pounds lighter thanks to a paleo lifestyle, but that’s a story for another day.)
Buzzing from the success and my newfound passion for the arts I met up with one of my Creative Writing lecturers from Warwick, George Ttoouli. We talked horror, heavy metal, writing and all that good stuff. I’d just started writing for UK horror magazine, Scream, and had scored some big interviews with David Moody and Adam Nevill, amongst others.
I desperately wanted to find a magazine covering horror fiction but everything I could easily access gravitated more towards horror cinema.
I wanted to cover more horror fiction than Scream were prepared to commission so decided to create my own platform, Read Horror (later to become This Is Horror). Not long into my journey I discovered Black Static – an amazing magazine that covers an awful lot of horror fiction (actually George Ttoouli put me onto them, too).
I suppose if I had known about Black Static prior to This Is Horror I might not have even started it but I’m very glad I did and very pleased by the support it’s gained. Fast-forward four years and we now have a podcast, publishing line and are constantly growing.
Horror fandom is famously (infamously?) diverse and vociferous. How did you set about carving a distinctive niche for yourself in that – pretty crowded – scene?
I think what sets us apart from the majority of websites is our dedication to horror fiction. When I founded This Is Horror I didn’t know of any other horror fiction websites. When you think of the big names in horror – whether magazines or websites – you’re likely to think of Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and others, all of which primarily focus on horror films. In focusing on horror fiction we carved a niche early doors.
Even now, despite a hugely successful horror film section thanks to This Is Horror Head of Film and TV, Jason Hicks, it’s no secret that our focus – and what we’re most known for – is our coverage of horror fiction. Alongside This Is Horror Deputy Editor, Dan Howarth, I host a weekly podcast. At the time of the interview we’re sixty-four episodes in.
The This Is Horror Podcast features interviews with horror professionals from the publishing world including authors, editors and publishers. On occasion we supplement these episodes with author-narrated stories. Our podcast is primarily for readers, writers and creators, so we delve a little deeper into the creative process than most of our peers.
It’s worth mentioning our publishing line and how we differ from others. We started off as a publisher of limited edition chapbooks and now publish mass-market novellas.
We take a wide definition of horror and want to show readers the scope and breadth of the genre. I think a lot of people unfamiliar with the genre think of monsters, gore, zombies and the like when they think of horror, but actually that’s only a small part of it. Our number one priority isn’t capturing a certain subgenre but on publishing high quality fiction. Not only are we showing our readers the vast expanse of the horror genre, but we’re showing readers that the best of horror fiction is the best of fiction.
Would you say that horror thrives on tropes and formulas more than any other genres, and if so how would you define truly distinctive works of horror?
No, I wouldn’t. Every genre has its stock tropes and formulas. Every genre can be reduced to a cliché or archetype. Horror suffers (and I think suffers is more apt than thrives) from this no more than romance, crime or any other genre.
We could spend an awful lot of time trying to define horror and just as we thought we’d found the definition we would uncover an exception. I’ve spent a lot of time discussing what horror is and isn’t on the This Is Horror Podcast. I think there’s a very thin line between crime and horror fiction. For me The Silence of the Lambs is undoubtedly horror. Look at the majority of Chuck Palahniuk and Brett Easton Ellis’ fiction. Perhaps not ‘horror’ but packed full of horror.
A starting point, for me, is whether the fiction makes me feel uncomfortable – does it shock, repulse or frighten me. Is it disturbing? I just read Piercing by Ryu Murakami. A tense read with some graphic depictions of violence and jet-black humour. Is it horror? Perhaps. What’s more important to me is whether I enjoyed it, whether it’s good writing. That’s more important than any genre label.
Despite its apparent primary function to shock and disturb, plenty of horror is also defined by a strong sense of camp. Would you say that this is a more recent development, or has it always been part of the genre?
It’s always been part of the genre. There are so many facets of horror. The more carnival-camp-cabaret horror and the bleak disturbing horror that taps its way into the psyche. There’s also the great tradition of ghost stories from the likes of M.R. James et al. Then there’s the weird.
Stories that truly disturb me aren’t always that in-your-face ‘shock and disturb’. They make you comfortable, lull you into a false sense of security and then take you the places you never wanted to travel. That comfort doesn’t have to be a cushy situation on the page, it could simply be the narrator’s tone. Or, like Richard Thomas’s Disintegration there are books that just throw you deep into despair from the off.
To go back to your original question, I think if we look at the slasher genre there’s a unity of ‘camp’ and the ‘shock and disturb’ function. These aren’t necessarily, or even often, separate elements but rather pieces that go hand-in-hand.
On a similar note, horror encompasses various sub-genres, moods and tones. How do you account for this variety?
Different things disturb, shock and repulse different people. Perhaps I’m scared of a home invasion or losing my wife, but someone else is scared of a masked killer stabbing up the town, other people are disturbed by supernatural elements or being trapped in confined spaces. You only need to look at an exhaustive list of phobias to see just how many flavours of terror there are.
I think, as well, different sub-genres serve different functions. There’s something light and fun about the homage to previous slashers that is Scream, you can almost see them nod and wink (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games style) at the camera. If you delve into a ghost story you’re going to experience a different discomfort than if you read Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. How do you want to be frightened? Take your pick there’s enough here for everyone.
Would you say the horror genre is in a healthy place at the moment? And what, in your opinion, is the most innovative thing happening in horror right now?
I think we’re in a good place right now and there are a lot of exciting new voices in horror. Not only are there many voices but there’s a great deal of variety and originality, too. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay manages to be both a wholly original take on the exorcism genre and a tribute to everything that’s come before it.
Last year Bird Box by Josh Malerman took the seemingly done-to-death (pun intended) apocalyptic genre and delivered something we’d never seen before. Read anything by Nathan Ballingrud and chances are it’s absolute gold. This is just scratching the surface. Seriously.
The This Is Horror Podcast has gained in popularity recently, but look at all the other podcasts that are churning out quality content with a primary focus on horror fiction. There’s Scott Nicolay’s The Outer Dark, Brian Keene’s The Horror Show and whilst it may not be ‘all horror all the time’ I have to mention the review and interview centric fiction podcast, Booked.
What are some of the most exciting things that readers can expect from This Is Horror in the coming months?
We recently announced a publishing deal for T.E. Grau. If you haven’t checked out his fiction you are missing out. The Nameless Dark, his debut collection from Lethe Press, is absolutely brilliant. We have more commissions for 2016 that will be announced very shortly so keep checking back the This Is Horror website for that.
Other than that there’s the annual This Is Horror awards which are always popular. The first stage may even have commenced when this is published.
All that said, for me the most exciting thing is the podcast. This year we’ve interviewed so many greats, Ellen Datlow, Helen Marshall, Paul Tremblay, Stephen Graham Jones, I could go on-and-on-and-on. Best of all, we’re just getting started. If you’re a reader, writer, creator or just a casual horror fan, do yourself a favour and subscribe to the This Is Horror Podcast.
Do you have a final Halloween message for our readers?
How about some Halloween recommendations? I don’t believe in spoilers so without any explanation watch Spring, Resolution and Starry Eyes. In terms of books, I may have mentioned them already, but you have to read Piercing by Ryu Murakami, A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay and Bird Box by Josh Malerman. And if you want a suitable slice of horror-themed music check out Lost Themes by John Carpenter and rock out to anything by heavy metal band, Ghost.