Today I’m most pleased to present an interview with author Robert Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar is best known for his critically acclaimed horror novels, The Pines and The Shore, both of which use the legend of the Jersey Devil to illustrate a much deeper narrative. His latest work is an anthology of his short stories entitled Martyrs & Monsters, which I thoroughly enjoyed as one of the finest horror anthologies I’ve read in years.
Mr. Dunbar is witty and erudite and has some special news to share with us today. No matter what type of fiction you write, you’ll have something to learn from Robert Dunbar:
Tell us about your most recent work, Martyrs & Monsters.
Of the three books released in the past – what? – fifteen months or so, this one is definitely the closest to my heart. It’s a collection of stories, running the gamut of the genres but always returning to horror. What unifies them (aside from the fact that they represent some of my best work) is an outsider perspective. You understand? My characters tend not to be vanilla types. No, they’re much more likely to be outcasts or outlaws of one sort or another, addicts and hustlers (of various genders), the homeless, the hopeless. Strange how much easier it is to gain acceptance for the exceptional in other genres. Have you noticed this?
Detective fiction has long championed the individual of questionable social status, and science fiction has a fine tradition of unconventional heroes and heroines. But horror can be incredibly reactionary. How many stories have we all suffered through about perfect families threatened by ghosts or space aliens or nasty foreign vampires (of suspect sexuality)? The plot templates always revolve around these intruders being destroyed … so that the status quo may be maintained. It’s all about power. I have a somewhat different take on who the real monsters in this world are.
What is your favorite story from Martyrs & Monsters and why?
Isn’t that a little like asking a parent to choose a favorite child? Some of the edgier, more avant-garde stories have provoked intense responses from readers and critics, but I inevitably prefer the ones that I think of as tone poems – like “Getting Wet” or “Are We Dead Yet?” Both those stories concern the same characters (and could easily someday become the pivotal chapters of a novel). Those dangerously unstable kids are in trouble and in love and in their own murderous way – like so many of my characters – rather valiant. What? You think it’s easy to kill people?
You have two novels that use the Jersey Devil as the vehicle to tell a much deeper narrative. Can you tell us about The Pines and The Shore and what led you to use the legend of the Jersey Devil?
That’s a very perceptive remark. Yes, I use the legend as a vehicle for something deeper. What led me to it? I think all writers want to find something of their own, to tell a story no one else has told. Over the years, The Pines has appeared in six different editions and is only now available in paperback in an unabridged form, but the first few times it came out that poor book was hacked to pieces. (There’s a difference between editing and censorship, but let’s save that discussion for another time.) These days, the legend of the Leeds Devil has influenced everything from The X-Files to The Blair Witch Project, but when I wrote that novel, it was almost completely unknown outside of New Jersey. It was a rich vein to mine, because the folklore boasts so many classic components. The hut in the swamp. The pact with the Devil. The monstrous thirteenth child. And you’re quite right – my books employ the atmosphere around the myth to create a far more sophisticated tale of blighted lives. There’s terror and mystery there, yes, but also courage and sacrifice. And love. That’s what made it worth writing.
In all your work, you present what initially appears to be a superficial story, but by the end of the novel or short story, you’ve embedded a theme that makes the reader think, not just about how the characters were affected, but about society as a whole and how we allow our superstitions to invade our lives. How do you plot your stories to reflect your themes so subtly, or does this aspect of writing come natural to you?
The qualities you mention pervade my work because they pervade my psyche. This is the way I tell stories, because this is the way I see things. The plot and characters, the narrative technique – all spring from the same core. Let’s see if I can come up with an illustration. Look. Currently, I’m at work on a novella called Wood in which the story couldn’t possibly be more basic: a young girl must travel through a dangerous area in order to reach safety. But each moment is examined so intensely, observed so intimately, that it becomes a symphony of nuances, of metaphors and ironies and characterization, until the level and tone of the writing become far more prominent and gripping than the simple mechanics of plot tension. That’s where the joy lies for me.
Horror is a very subjective field, what scares one person often can be laughable to the next. What do you believe makes a good horror story?
As a reader, I’ve always harbored the most unreasonable standards. I require excellence. Period. It doesn’t matter whether it’s mainstream fiction – whatever that means – or one of the genres, science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery. These same standards must apply. One of the most cathartically terrifying stories I’ve ever read, Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo, excels because of the poetic impact of the piece, its hypnotic elegance and power. It almost cries out to be read aloud. Upon realizing the extent to which the unfortunate main character has been transformed, the reader experiences an almost physical reaction. No, I take that back. It is a physical reaction. I can remember actually losing all feeling in my arms and legs the first time I read that story.
There are other examples of course. There’s a moment roughly halfway through Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife – a great novel – where an anthropology professor uses one of his wife’s own spells to prevent her drowning herself. Later, she appears in the doorway, running with sea water, and explains he was “a minute too late.” If the book doesn’t fly out of your hand at that moment, she may not be the only one legally dead. (There’s a comparable frisson in Greg Gifune’s recent book The Judas Goat where the main character finds a note from a dead woman.) All the great works within the genre function on that same level . . . by utilizing the basic tools of literature. If the author can’t perform on that level, I’m not interested. Of course, this bias puts me rather on the fringe of the genre, but it’s an important fringe, a vital one.
My good friend Kelly Bryson came up with a couple questions: As a horror writer, do you ever hold back on the horror in your novels? And how do you decide how far to go?
As you’ve mentioned, my work can be on the subtle side. Look at The Shore . . . where everything is shadow and suggestion. But with The Pines I purposely wrote against the grain, against my natural bent, until the book became this expressionistic orgy of violence, which happens to be the only honest way to tell that particular story. Plus I figured it would blow readers away, which it did. But what affected them just as powerfully were the real characters, floundering in this tidal wave of gore. Stylistically, the risks paid off. Critical (and popular) responses to that book have been both extreme and passionate. I suppose that’s a technique I might employ again, if I thought it justified, though I seem to be evolving in a decidedly different direction.
Nickolas Cook at the popular webzine The Black Glove recently referred to me as “the master of quiet horror.” If I can reach a point where I actually deserve that title, I will be one happy writer. Certainly, there are moments in Martyrs & Monsters that shock, but nothing is ever described beyond necessity. This is the difference between the compellingly erotic and merely pornographic. Besides, things in the shadows are infinitely more disturbing – and enticing – than things in the light. All the old masters knew that.
Let’s talk about . . . water. In your stories The Pines, The Shore and in Martyrs & Monsters (the short story Mal de Mer for example) water, especially the ocean, is very sinister. Do you have a reason you use water/the ocean as a backdrop of destruction in your novels and short stories? Or am I just looking for psychological issues that don’t exist?
Funny how women love that story. I’m just finishing a book of essays entitled The Loreli Vortex that explores this imagery further, and I’ve actually been surprised by how few critics have discerned what I think is fairly consistent symbology in my work. From Homer to Virginia Woolf, writers have seldom been able to resist the potent imagery of the sea. Water can be so beautiful. Mysterious. Terrifying. It’s also the very source of life – each wave breaking on every shore becomes like the dawn of time, endlessly reenacted. In The Pines, I utilized the savage landscape of the woods metaphorically. And remember the climactic forest fire? For The Shore, I raised the stakes even higher, and every critic has commented on the primordial impact of the hurricane sequences.
You have two novels, an anthology of short stories to your credit, and even a play, the horror-comedy Bats. Tell us about Bats.
It sounds a little scattershot, doesn’t it? Novels, stories, plays. It’s even worse than you suspect actually, but then dark secrets lurk in everyone’s past, everyone worth knowing anyway. My background encompasses dire little poetry journals as well as readings in grim coffeehouses, and early on, several of my incoherently experimental plays were performed in sinister storefront theatres. Then came hundreds of newspaper and magazines articles, theatre reviews, film reviews, interviews with artists and performers of all sorts. Eventually, I blundered into television and wrote cooking shows for PBS, then home repair shows for the Discovery Channel and travel shows for . . . oh well, you get the idea. It wound up totaling something along the lines of about four hundred programs altogether.
All those years, I stumbled from one thing to another, trying on different hats, different identities. Actor. Director. Producer. To put it mildly, my creative energies were cast to the winds. Then something weird happened. I fell in love. Somebody amazing who believes in you changes everything. Never doubt it. All that energy expended in trying to find myself? Forget it. I wasn’t lost anymore. And I realized that, if I were ever to do any important writing, I needed to take control of my life. Right now. (As my sainted friend Florence used to say, “This is not dress rehearsal.”) All the work I’ve created since, the books and stories people have responded to so enthusiastically, they all flow from that epiphany.
Wait. What was the question again? Oh. Bats. Right – an incredibly rewarding, incredibly exhausting project with an interesting genesis. When I was doing a lot of television, I’d appeared as a guest on his horror showcase with a huge cult following, where the host was this wildly funny comedienne/actress named Karen Scioli. (The show – Saturday Night Dead – was on for many years and even won a Mid-Atlantic Emmy.) Later, Karen and I got to be good friends, and I put together a series of vignettes about a movie diva whose career is reborn from the ashes. We did scenes from her films, interspersed with bizarre moments from her life (many of which strangely paralleled her movies). Curtains billowed, and candles flickered. And such toys to play with! We had a fog machine and real flying bats and . . . I’m hyperventilating. Let’s just say it was horror-nerd heaven. (Karen, by the way, was brilliant in the role.) The play has had several productions, won a series of exceedingly minor awards and was even excerpted in a theatre magazine. I always loved it. Quite soon now, the script will be released in book form.
With your writing skills, you could easily write literary fiction. What draws you to genre fiction and especially to horror?
Listen, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am writing literary fiction, but don’t tell anyone. People are so obsessed with labels. I mean, come on. Would you call Henry James a horror writer? No? Yet he penned the seminal modern psychological ghost tale, The Turn of the Screw. How about William Faulkner? Herman Melville? William Shakespeare? No? Well then, how do you explain all those ghosts and monsters, demons and witches? Think about it. Was Dashiell Hammett merely a mystery writer because he wrote about detectives? No, of course not. He was a genius. Is Samuel R. Delany just a science fiction writer? Art transcends. It transmutes. Or at least it should. That’s the goal. Always.
You have so many great accomplishments behind you. What’s next for you in 2010 and beyond?
Well, there are several new books in different stages, some ready to roll out, some not. The most recent is a novel called Willy, which will be published later this year. That never changes. How could it? Work continues to be the central focus of any real writer’s life. On the other hand, now that you mention it, there is something new and exciting in the works for 2010. Exciting and terrifying really – for me at least. I’m about to launch a small press of my own, a company that will focus exclusively on publishing highly literary efforts from a variety of genres. I believe a market for intellectually sophisticated dark fiction does exist, though that readership has been shamefully neglected. Already, I’m in touch with a number of remarkable writers, and the first books are lining up at the starting gate. Wish us luck!
If you haven’t had the opportunity to read Mr. Dunbar’s novels, I suggest you give them a read. You’ll be hooked from the beginning and a fan for life.
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Visit him at his web site: http://www.dunbarauthor.com/
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