DarkEcho Horror
Iron Fawn by Rick Berry

DOUGLAS E. WINTER: Offering Revelation April 2000
By Paula Guran

When seeking words of wisdom, some people quote the Bible, others quote Shakespeare; some find enlightenment in the words of ancient texts and some in modern lyrics. Me? When it comes to horror, I quote Douglas E. Winter. My outlook on modern horror is certainly influenced by a number of sources, but St. Doug is the most pervading one. His FACES OF FEAR -- a World Fantasy Award-winning and Hugo-nominated collection of interviews with the creators of horror modern horror published in 1985 -- is always within hand's reach. I have two copies of his 1982 fiction anthology PRIME EVIL. (What if I lose a copy?) Ladies and gentlemen, this is the man who said, in PRIME EVIL, "Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstore. . . Horror is an emotion." Horror, he also reminded us in his afterword to his 1997 International Horror Guild award-winning anthology REVELATIONS, is "that which cannot be made safe -- evolving, ever-changing --because it is about our relentless need to confront the unknown, the unknowable, and the emotion we experience when in its thrall."

Winter's nonfiction includes the definitive biography/critique STEPHEN KING: THE ART OF DARKNESS (1984) and the forthcoming CLIVE BARKER: THE DARK FANTASTIC. A member of the National Book Critics, his reviews and articles have appeared in mainstream publications such as THE WASHINGTON POST and HARPER'S BAZAAR and he received a special World Fantasy Award in 1986 for his criticism. His award-wining short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies over the years. An honor graduate of Harvard Law School, Winter's "day job" is as a trial and appellate lawyer in the Washington, D.C., office of Bryan Cave LLP.


He's just published his *first* novel, RUN. RUN sold to Knopf for a "substantial six-figure" advance as part of a two-book deal. It is a Selection of the Book of the Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club and has sold to Canongate in Great Britain; Gallimard in France; E-con/Verlagshaus in Germany; and Kodansha in Japan. Read it and, like me, you will agree with Peter Straub's assessment: "Instantly -- I mean from the first paragraph -- RUN's language jumps off the page and sears itself into the reader's consciousness. . . Original in every way, RUN is a masterly redefinition of the crime thriller, one in which Douglas E. Winter has discovered a voice that seems to come up from his heels."

Douglas Winter GURAN: Tell me about RUN. Why should people read it?

WINTER: RUN is a novel about the American culture of violence -- about the diseases of guns and bigotry. It's the story of Burdon Lane, a dissolute gunrunner, and the doomed alliance between Burdon's crew of white suburban criminals and a Washington, D.C., street gang as they hustle a cache of illegal weapons north to Manhattan. But their down-and-dirty deal erupts into a national nightmare when another run -- the run inside the run -- is revealed.

The book tries to accomplish something I've talked about for years: RUN is a novel of horror that's not a horror novel. It's also a book that I hope people will read for its voice and style; because my intent -- and risk -- in writing RUN was to create a novel that was unique. That was mine. Whether you close the book after the first page or the final page, you have to say it's Doug Winter's book.

GURAN: People write for many reasons . . . but to create something that is uniquely yours -- why was this so important to you?

WINTER: Because that's what I love as a reader: novels with a voice, with an attitude -- novels where the writer isn't subsumed in the prose. And let's face it: I didn't want to be known for writing just another lawyer novel, just another suspense novel, just another horror novel. If I was going to publish a novel at long last, it was gong to be my novel, written in my own way and on my own terms. So I made a conscious decision to write a book that wasn't "safe" commercially -- to take the risk that RUN would be rejected out of hand by certain editors (and, indeed, it was) because it didn't conform to expectations. But that very risk made RUN appealing to other editors and publishers -- and, hopefully, to readers.

GURAN: Why a novel? You are highly regarded for your editing, nonfiction, criticism, and occasional short story. You are a successful attorney. You seem to combine both of your sides fairly effectively. Why become a first novelist at this point in your life? Why, as you admit yourself, take the risk?

WINTER: Why not? My dream has been to write full-time -- and to write novels. My reality has been that I've been preoccupied with the law, and whatever time I've had for writing has been consumed by nonfiction, criticism, editing. And since I've had some success with those pursuits, there was never the time or the impetus to spend years writing a novel on the speculation that someone might publish it.

RUN In the mid-nineties, that changed. In 1987, just as my writing career seemed to be reaching its stride, Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport; it was the second worst air disaster on American soil, and the litigation that followed was a nightmare that seemed like it would never end. I was lead counsel in the defense of McDonnell Douglas Corporation, which manufactured the airplane, and I lived on the road for more than three years, finally moving to Detroit, where the jury trial in federal court lasted nineteenth months. The appeals that followed went on for nearly five more years. We won: completely and convincingly. Professionally, it was the greatest achievement imaginable; but personally, I lost. Years without my family and friends. Years without writing. Years without any sense of pleasure in life. I suffered a terrible depression that no one at my law firm -- no one at all, except my wife -- could even begin to comprehend.

And nothing could break its spell. In the end, the only way out of that darkness was to write my way out. I realized that I needed to write a novel -- even if it meant risking everything, devoting years to a text on the chance that someone would publish the result. Which was RUN.

GURAN: Are you saying that the creative urge can somehow expunge one's personal demons?

WINTER: Writing the novel was a way of reclaiming my life -- making it my own again -- while trying to make sense of seemingly senseless carnage and tragedy. By the end of the air disaster litigation, I felt like a puppet, dancing on the strings of a bleak history: two dead pilots whose mistakes had killed more than 150 people, and an insurance company that wouldn't acknowledge that truth. I spent weeks sitting in rooms with parents, spouses, children whose loved ones had been immolated. I watched people break down; I suffered their anger and fury; I was cursed, I was threatened, I was shoved; I was a kind of scape-goat for the sins of others. And that was nothing compared to the years of relentless emotional and psychological warfare among the lawyers, in and out of the courtroom.

I don't think of those things as demons; and I doubt that I could ever exorcise them. What I could do, in writing, was return to myself some semblance of control over my life -- and, perhaps more important, a sense of creating, of giving something to the world. Because those years were sterile; I defended my client, who was accused wrongfully of complicity in the accident, and I earned a lot of money for myself and for my law firm. But I felt like a gardener who was forced to spend so much time pulling weeds that he was never able to plant anything -- or to have the pleasure of watching something grow.

GURAN: RUN's plot pivots around an illegal gunrunning operation. There's a tremendous amount of information delivered about the "deal" that goes down, but also about guns themselves. Where and how did you get the background on this?

WINTER: I knew a fair amount about weapons from my childhood and my time in the military. But when I knew that I was going to write about gunrunning, and that my story would speak to American gun culture, I knew that the weaponry had to be depicted with utter realism. So I spent a lot of time with police and FBI agents, ATF agents and Secret Service agents, weapons experts. I spent a lot of time in gun shops and armories, on ranges; a lot of time reading gun magazines and books from folks like Paladin Press. But I also spent a lot of time in my imagination, working through the gaps between news stories about things like "straw purchase" schemes and into the realities of how those schemes are pursued on the street.

GURAN: Turning from the specific to the more general, at least in terms of horror -- I've seen you referred to (circa 1988) as "the conscience of horror and dark fantasy." How did that come about?

WINTER: Those words were written originally, as I recall, by T.E.D. Klein, when he was editor of TWILIGHT ZONE magazine; and then revisited by others -- sometimes, inevitably, as hype. They were very kind, very gracious words. The reason they were offered, I think, is that I was one of the few people who wrote for mainstream publications who treated horror fiction seriously -- and who tried, whenever possible, to argue for its literary traditions, its cultural importance and its dignity. I devoted myself to trying to understand and explicate the urges that powered the fiction into (and then out of) commercial popularity during the eighties. And I was also one of the few voices who challenged, from the get-go, the lemming-like embrace of horror, by publishers and writers alike, as a marketing category.

GURAN: And are you still the conscience of horror?

WINTER: That's not my call. I don't think of myself in those terms. I think of myself as a writer, first, and then as a critic whose perspectives on horror may be useful in its eternal struggle for legitimacy and respect.

GURAN: How did you get into horror anyway? You know, I was raised as a Southern Baptist...

WINTER: So was I . . . and there's something there, certainly: the imagery of blood, and the imminence of damnation, was a constant on Sundays and Wednesdays. But I doubt there's a simplistic first cause for my twist toward the terrifying.

My mother made me (and my brother, who's a historian) into a writer. She was a schoolteacher, and she did anything and everything -- even buying my subscriptions to FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND -- to encourage me to read and write, which I've done for as long as I can remember. I really can't remember ever being unable to read. By the time I was in first grade, I could read sixth grade textbooks; and by the time I was in second grade, I was writing "novels" -- six or ten pages long -- most of them about the violent escapades of monsters.

Of course, there were youthful experiences that might offer some insight, I suppose, into my fascination with fear and the forbidden. One came when I saw the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS on television, and then, when sleeping that night, dreamed myself into the story. Another came when I found myself alone in a darkened church sanctuary -- which, I think, was my first experience of the element of awe that is intrinsic to the emotion of horror.

GURAN: We've discussed your idea that part of what is "wrong" with horror today is that too many writers have fixed upon what was published circa 1984 as THE definition of horror. But, you contend, horror fiction is evolving, constantly changing, and *always* surviving. In your afterword to REVELATIONS and in the essay "Pathos of Genre", you tell us horror is "that which cannot be made safe --evolving, ever-changing -- because it is about our relentless need to confront the unknown, the unknowable, and the emotion we experience when in its thrall." How has horror evolved in your almost half-century on earth?

Douglas Winter WINTER: Keep in mind that we're discussing two very different things here. One is the market definition, or genre definition, of horror, while the other is the literary expression of horror. The latter is indeed ever-evolving, if only because the fears and terrors of human experience change with time. An obvious example is the horror of technological and institutional betrayal that powers some of Stephen King's novels. That kind of horror was rarely explored before my lifetime; and it derives, obviously, from the experiences of a generation that grew up in the shadow of the atomic bomb, that witnessed the failure of the technological imperative and the tragedies of Vietnam. My critique of generic horror is that its writers don't often write about their experience of events (or, indeed, of life), but about the experience of having read novels by King (or Anne Rice or Dean Koontz). So it's a "horror" that's unpersuasive because it's not genuinely felt; it's written to replicate, to create a kind of book.

What is more intriguing about the evolution of horror (and the increasing redundancy of generic horror fiction) is the way horror has flourished in news and "infotainment." Horror fiction was once the window on subjects that weren't considered polite or proper in public discourse. But when the nightly news offers pictures of autopsies and atrocities, and the Internet offers access to endless extremities, the role of horror fiction as a mediator of the taboo has been supplanted. Which means, quite simply, that you can't get away with the cheap shot of just shocking people anymore. You actually have to do the work of a writer. You have to involve readers, fascinate them, seduce them . . . offer them revelation.

GURAN: According to your thoughts -- writers who hold true to the fundamental emotions of horror (and not its genre trappings) and who pursue those emotions through fiction that is relevant to its time are currently creating new kinds of horror fiction, and not trying to pass off the same old horror fiction under a different name. Just who IS creating "new horror" right now?

cover WINTER: To name a few: Peter Straub, David J. Schow, Michael Marshall Smith, Poppy Z. Brite, Caitlín Kiernan -- at least among those whom readers tend to identify with a fiction known as "horror." Despite all the doomsayers, horror is alive and well and thriving in our literature; consider José Saramago's BLINDNESS or Chuck Palahuink's SURVIVOR or Boston Teran's GOD IS A BULLET -- very different novels, but all written with a genuine intent to disturb readers. Then compare these books with the latest batch of self-styled "horror" novels: I mean, how many times do we have to read about the writer who moves into the old haunted house in the country?

GURAN: But people still seem to *want* to read about this . . . over and over and over?

WINTER: And people still "want" to watch re-runs of "Gilligan's Island," too. There is no denying that need for the familiar and the expected in popular entertainment -- or that some people are going to read whatever the marketplace offers them. But repetition is anathema to the emotion of horror. We see the cycle repeatedly: the descent from Frankenstein through a succession of sequels to self-parody in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and then a brief resurrection in Hammer films before assimilation: now the Frankenstein monster is so safe that it's a beanie baby.

The notion that people "want" the expected is precisely what burst the bubble on generic horror fiction. It was obvious by the early nineties that readers were tired of the same old stories, and that they didn't want to read them in numbers that made sense to the major publishers. But too many writers -- the ones who were writing a kind of book -- couldn't or wouldn't adapt.

GURAN: But, You refer to RUN as a "thriller" -- is that your choice or your publisher's?

WINTER: One of the blessings of being published by Knopf is that they really do publish novels, and don't fill slots in categories. "Thriller" is their word, but it's the inevitable word, because that is the impulse of the book. I've always had difficulty finding the right descriptive for RUN -- and, of course, pigeonholes are contrary to my nature. The words "criminal suspense" are too limiting, and the book is all about trying to subvert and transcend generic typecasting. RUN is a crime novel, a noir, a suspense novel, a horror novel, a political novel, a moral fiction -- and more -- written in a style that's all about momentum, about thrilling the reader in the best sense of the word. I want the prose to excite you, not only about the story but about its ideas. Because I'm very passionate about the issues inside the story.

GURAN: Do you see yourself in any way as an Andrew Vachss (another attorney) who writes to support his passionate causes?

WINTER: RUN isn't written in service of a cause. It has something to say about the problem of guns, the problem of race, the problem of ambivalence in the face of the social and economic fabric of our times; but . . . it's a novel, so what it's about, fundamentally, is entertainment.

To me, the great power of fiction is its ability to give readers a fresh perspective on issues and ideas -- particularly on difficult and controversial ones -- while entertaining them; which, of course, makes it a wonderfully subversive art. So writing RUN was my passionate cause; I think that novels and stories provide a far better forum for the expression of pure ideas than courtrooms.

GURAN? You are working on another novel? About?

WINTER: I have a two-book contract with Knopf. So I'm working on a new novel; but I don't like to talk about what I'm writing. All I can say is that, like RUN, it's a book about the collision of what we perceive as cultural absolutes -- pro-this, anti-that. We're so insistent on divisions -- black and white, right and left, pro-choice and pro-life -- that we've begun to believe that we live in an either/or world, when we all know better. We all know it's a world of grey. RUN is about coming to terms with the ambiguities of the world, and the new novel will take that impulse to another, and quite different, level.

GURAN: And in the non-fiction line?

WINTER: My biography and critique, CLIVE BARKER: THE DARK FANTASTIC, will appear in February 2001 from HarperCollins. It's a fine monster of a book, about twice the length of my text on Stephen King, and I think it's going to delight Clive's fans -- and open the eyes (and, hopefully, the minds) of readers generally.

GURAN: Where is Doug Winter going to be in five years? Ten?

WINTER: Alive, I hope. Older, maybe even wiser. And hopefully a better writer -- and one known for his novels.

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