DarkEcho Horror
Iron Fawn by Rick Berry

DAVID J. SCHOW: At Point, Weapon Ready

May 1999
By Paula Guran

David J Schow It's been more than two years since I last formally interviewed David J. Schow -- since then we've exchanged a lot of email, some of which has been an ongoing dialogue about horror and horror writing. Schow, whether in public (as in his past Fangoriacolumn "Raving and Drooling") or private, is Schow -- intelligent, cynical, insightful, knowledgeable, and, although open to others' opinions, immune to what slings and arrows anyone might fling toward him.

Schow and I both returned to that earlier interview, cannibalizing bits of it to an extent, but, more importantly, expanding a few points and hitting a few new ones. Originally published by Omni, you can still read it at DarkEcho Horror.

Schow's first short stories were published in the 70s in magazines like The Twilight Zone, Whispers, and Weird Tales. He published two novels, The Kill Riff (originally 1987 and soon to be re-leased) and The Shaft (1990), full of rock and roll, drugs, visceral horror, violence, and a style of writing labeled as "splatterpunk" -- an unfortunate (and now outmoded) term for which Schow has only himself to blame: "I made it up to describe hyperintensive horror -- the Clive Barker 'there are no limits' variety -- more than 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."

book cover His many short stories have won awards, been translated all over the world, and collected in Seeing Red (originally 1990 and soon to be re-released), Lost Angels (originally 1990 and soon to be re-released), Black Leather Required (1994), and last year's Crypt Orchids. Schow edited an anthology of film-related horror stories, Silver Scream (1989), as well as the new The Devil with You!: The Lost Bloch, Volume One -- the first of several planned volumes that explore Robert Bloch novels and novellas written for the pulps of the 40s and 50s.

Schow has written screenplays for the third Chainsaw Massacre movie, Critters 3 and Critters 4; The Crow, and has just finished the latest draft of a screenplay, The Furthest Place for James Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment and 20th Century-Fox. He's done teleplays as well, including an adaptation of his award-winning short story "Red Light" for The Hunger and "The Exile" episode for Perversions Of Science. "A whole bunch more Hungers are coming in September, but they're based on stories of mine, not scripted by me, because of a delightful stone wall called the Canadian Content Ruling," he explains, "which favors talent and technicians indigenous to Canada, where the episodes are produced. Americans are only recently getting frustrated enough by these regs to begin implementing ways to circumvent them. In fact, you can get a little badge showing a maple leaf with a red circle and slash through it -- the first button I've seen in over a decade that I'd actually wear."

book cover Schow's expertise concerning the classic sf television series The Outer Limits,which ran 1963-65, is displayed in the recently revised and updated Outer Limits Companion (. As Schow says, the new edition "weighs enough to stun a police dog. It is a show where the artistic temperaments were in charge in spite of the sausage-factory grind of TV. It is a terrific illustration of the "bridge" between fantastic subject matter then and now. Then: Special effects and makeup were often not up to the demands of storytelling. Now: The storytelling falls far short of the effects technology. Then: The look was cinematic, Expressionistic, damn near Gothic. Now: All TV looks like it's shot in Canada (because it is) with no respect for lighting, framing, or composition, and everything bears the "flat" look of video-generated effects or the plastic sheen of CGI. Then: You could open TV Guide and read a credit for who actually wrote an episode. Now: Nobody knows the writers and nobody cares who they are, usually with good reason."

"The monsters of The Outer Limits," he continues, "influenced the 'look' of every rubber suit or creature mask to follow. The show was a profound inspiration to most people who grew up with it, because it was lasting art, as opposed to disposable art."

Beyond the impact of the "art" of a television series, Schow admits that "for most writers more people will see the worst movie you ever make than read the best book you ever write. Let's say you've just had your first novel published. It's signed, sealed, and delivered; it's got a cover and a price, and it has just embarked upon its estimated two weeks of life on our nation's Big Wire Racks. As a neophyte writer, you tend to proceed from the standpoint that once your book is out in the world, it remains but for people to pick it up and read it. Wrong. Most people need to be heavily directed; once pointed toward your book, they actually have to pay off their good intentions by reading it. This happens so rarely out in the world that it constitutes a surprise event when somebody actually wanders all the way through that maze and comes out the other end to say they liked or disliked it."

"And after all that, you may get a rotten review. But one thing remains true -- that an author's book is 'out' in the world" at last is frequently apparent only to the author. Everybody else needs special assistance. And that's not counting all the total strangers you theoretically want to read your book."

Stack that reality up against the opening weekend grosses of The Matrix, for instance, and the contrast is clear. "Stir in the added ingredient that browsers are much more likely to rent a video of The Matrix on impulse than buy a book on impulse, and you may begin to feel a tad depressed. Large bookstores are no different than Blockbuster Video, which means that anything but the most broad-spectrum, topmost, easily-digestible, mass-market best-seller has a fight on its hands. The phrase but we can order it for you has probably kept more books from being purchased than sheer obscurity, though. As a balance, Internet booksellers have now made true impulse buying of books easier than it has ever been before in history."

Critters 3 Schow does not consider himself a prolific writer, "But I do have a body of published work that encompasses novels, short story collections, and nonfiction. Virtually everyone who watches movies is aware, on some level, of The Crow, or Leatherface, or Freddy Kreuger...and almost none of those people can name any of my books, and I perceive that as a problem. Did you know that because Critters 3 was Leonardo DiCaprio's first feature film role, my name is now on virtually every DiCaprio Web site in the world. Ponder the awesome responsibility of that!"

Like I said before, Schow's not one to hide the light of his opinion under any sort of bushel whatsoever. What some might see as negativity is uncomfortably correct, despite the overall bleakness of outlook. And, in fact, for all his black leather bad boy pose and combative nature -- Schow is a well-balanced and really pretty nice guy. He is, personally, a very moral person; his fiction, however, is amoral -- subverting conventional morality by unsettling and upsetting readers, forcing them to come to their own conclusions.

"I periodically default myself back toward the sanity of a laissez-faire approach to life, insofar as your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins," he says. "In theory you try to cut people the same slack you'd like strangers to cut for you just as a matter of common humanity. The problems swing in when people abandon their humanity -- i.e.., random violence -- or begin to wax all attitudinal when it comes to honoring obligations; we are delivered into a place where honor and ethics have become worse than four-letter words, and in the course of keeping the skin on one's own butt, one is apt to become bitter."

"I hate "judging" my characters, and enjoy it best when they defy cut-and-dried, black versus white, so-called good and so-called evil; either-or. I'm much more interested in a paper-rock-scissors view of what "normal" folks see as immutable, polarized absolutes."

Schow relates a reaction, from the proofreader of an original anthology, to recent story of his that was included in the book: "The comment went something like, 'The story was very well-done, and is just not the sort of thing I'd ever want to read.' This reader could not see past the grotesquerie, which was intentional, to perceive the point of the intensity. It was, if you will, amorality mistaken for immorality, a reaction much more common when an extreme presentation is merely gratuitous; in the case of my story, it's anything but. Yet that story is going to bug them; it's going to set a little Enoch to gnawing on the back of their skull, it's like a freak show that shows you things you may say you don't wish to see, but which, having peeked at anyway, you'll never forget. This poor person apparently wanted predigested horror according to a formula; what she got made her barf, intellectually speaking. The irony is that she was forced to read the story by her own job -- tacitly proving that she'd never elect to read 'this sort of thing' on her own. Yet that's the very audience I'd like more of; the people who can be shaken up, not the people who blandly tolerate extremes to prove how cool they are. I wish more readers, like the proofreader, didn't have a choice, and had to read what I write. Because instead of hurling next time, her brain might have an insight, or an orgasm."

book cover Major publishing houses, however, are just beginning to shake off their misperception that "horror is dead," and little of what is being published is intellectually challenging, let alone "orgasmic." Schow, like others, has turned to new avenues to get his words into print. "Nearly all of my backlist will become available within the next year, plus new projects, and none of it has anything to do with New York publishing. Internet book sales and publish-on-demand technology came along and made niche marketing a practical option, and just in time, too, since the midlist is exactly the niche established publishing houses care about the least, since they're all on the sniff for blockbuster numbers. At the same time, small presses have become more savvy about distribution and marketing -- all my small press projects are now regularly reviewed in Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. Small presses have evolved along with the technology, and have grown out of their vanity-press adolescence to become commercially viable, even competitive."

"Readers have been asking for years where some of these books could be obtained. Now they will be readily available via online vendors. Point, click, and it's yours. Please impulse-buy them.

Subterranean Press published my most recent collection, Crypt Orchids, last year. This year they're bringing out the first Lost Bloch, as mentioned above. I also designed the jackets for both."

GNP/Crescendo Records underwrote the resurrection of The Outer Limits Companion in a massive and lavishly illustrated new edition, every millimeter of which I designed and laid out. In a sense, I 'directed' that book and it turned out much better than it would have if I'd done it the accepted way, that is, mail a manuscript and a stack of photos to New York and hope for the best."

book cover "Alexander Publishing and EMR Books decided to revitalize my entire backlist as affordable trade paperbacks; the first four are Seeing Red and Lost Angels (collections), Wild Hairs (nonfiction) and The Kill Riff (first novel). Seeing Red which will be available soon it it's not already. Instead of bad art and bloated hype, all the books feature beautiful Lydia Marano covers. The first two have long new Afterwords, and Lost Angels contains a brand-new story. Wild Hairs is a new book which collects all the Fangoria columns plus a lot of other nonfiction, all of it annotated. It'll be like the Dave Schow Book of the Month Club.

[Note: For the most part, I try to avoid intruding on these articles with more current information. In this case, though, I wanted to point out that Alexamder/EMR never worked out and Babbage Books took over these projects. Seeing Red and Lost Angels came out in 2000, Wild Hairs in earlier 2001. Check out Babbage Press or the author's own Black Leather Required Web site.]

"This all said, I have to emphasize that no big publishing house could be expected to have any interest in short story reprints or eccentric projects like The Lost Bloch. Generally you must give big houses a new novel, or a contractual lock on several new novels, before they in turn bestow the favor of a reprint or a collection. If I was sitting on top of a new novel right now, I'd be off to New York as usual. In the meantime, all my other stuff is out there and accessible for those who want it."

book cover Why extend energy and devote effort to "eccentric projects" like The Lost -- decades old pulp fiction that even Schow admits falls short of the heights of Bloch's own literary achievement? "I'd like to make some effort toward ensuring that readers don't forget the likes of Robert Bloch, or Fritz Leiber, or Gerald Kersh, to name three out of hundreds I appreciate," Schow says. "I'd like to delude myself that somebody might do my writing the same courtesy when I'm dust. The Devil with You!: The Lost Bloch, Volume One is my effort toward giving Bloch a "new" book in 1999, and it's also an attempt to play the nostalgia card. While reading what Bloch wrote for pulp magazines half a century ago, I began to realize how similar that style is to the current-day best-seller formula -- tons of plot, tons of contrivance, keep it moving, don't alienate the reader; in short, make it the literary equivalent of watching television. Which means, astonishingly, that modern-day readers actually have a fighting chance of comprehending 50-year-old pulp stories, because they were purposefully written for easy ingestion. The only thing that has really changed is the slang."

Schow was recently asked to record a summation of himself for what will be, basically, an encyclopedia of horror writers: "If the subject writers were incapable of composing a brief bio or theme statement -- that in itself being an ominous notion -- a questionnaire was provided. Every question therein was a variation on that wheezing old standard, 'What's wrong with you?,' which writers are forever doomed to be asked, should their work involve anything remotely interpretable as scary. You know the drill: How do you defend your 'dark' leanings? What 'dark' thing happened to you as a child? That brand of dark dung."

"Reacting contrariwise, as I nearly always do, I submitted a little face-slap that included the following:

The established maps never chart the most interesting backroads. You need to know that no quip, no trenchant observation, no pithy metaphor nor amusing anecdote will ever bring readers closer to an understanding of how writing resonates if they keep asking, 'what's wrong with you?' If that's the most penetrating question you can come up with after spending your time on a writer's work, my first question is: What's wrong with YOU?

Further: What do you want from fiction? What drew you to your reading choices? Why do you read in the first place? What sort of writing threatens you the least? The most? What causes you to read a novel or story instead of indulging in sex, sports, cable TV or automobile maintenance? Name an example of what you consider to be really good writing.

Here's another challenge: Pick up one of the books cited above and read it. I dare you.

Let's up the ante: Pick up a book by anyone in this volume and read it cold --without preamble, blurbs, reviews, best-seller numbers or any foreknowledge. Then find yourself a book that's not brand new, by someone you may have never heard of, and read that.

Good hunting, and good luck. You need all the help you can get. Just remember that you don't always get a free map with each fillip.

Orange Ball Amongst the Blue "Well, I mean, the absolute gall of me. That horrid pun at the end, and everything. I was summarily informed that (surprise) I 'didn't fit in with the intended format,' and that I was 'an orange ball amongst all the blues.' This latter floored me. All the other writers were 'blue balls?' Wow! I don't think I've ever gotten a compliment quite so intense in my life...and that it was completely unintentional and unperceived kind of points up the lack of foresight that plagued the entire exchange."

"Seeing writers as misfits does nothing to deepen understanding, placate naysayers or attract new readers, any more than stubbornly seeing horror as a similarly 'misfit' form of literature is going to clarify or enrich the mass public's comprehension of its value. Maybe part of the solution to the seeming mystery of why horror writers are perceived as abnormal is that our job is to dream for those who cannot. Or those who dream badly. Which helps answer the question about where the fiction should be, because writers who deal in horror should be walking point, not bringing up the rear." Trust Schow to remain, as always, at point, weapon ready.

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