Here’s an interview I did with John Skipp (JS) and Shane Mckenzie (SM) for Splatterpunk 4. All questions by Jack Bantry.
1. You are both successful in the horror field. You’re living the dream? Is this what you wanted to do when you were growing up, in your teens, leaving school, etc? (SM) –Man, I really appreciate you saying I’m successful, because in my eyes, I have a long way to go. That being said, yes, I’m definitely living the dream. Living the dream in the sense that I get to tell a story and there are people out there who give a shit enough to want to read it. Having fans is definitely something I’m still trying to get used to. It’s a trip! It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do. All I knew for certain was that I wanted to be involved in the horror genre in some way. I went to the Art Institute of Dallas, graduated with a degree in computer animation. I thought it would be fun to make horror themed video games. Yeah…it’s not. It’s just too technical for me, and I realized I just wasn’t really a great artist. I’ll admit something…I didn’t even start reading books for pleasure until college. It was always horror movies for me. But once I read some Bentley Little, Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, Brian Keene, Richard Laymon, and yes, John Skipp, it was like an alarm going off in my head. This was what I wanted to do. I spent the rest of the time learning how, and still consider myself to be learning. (JS) — You gotta know, there was no horror scene when I came up. Horror was a subset of weird fantasy, getting its first toeholds thanks to the commercial success of ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, and Brian DePalma launching Stephen King with CARRIE. My first convention was a World Fantasy Convention. World Horror was nearly a decade away. But I always knew I wanted to fuck with people, and make them think. So am I living the dream? Absolutely.
2. What attracted you to horror fiction in the first place? (SM) – I never really know how to answer this question. It’s not a conscious thing. I just love horror. There’s something in my brain that when it sees monsters or over-the-top gore or masked serial killers, it says, “Yay!” (JS) — I came into this world scared, and got really tired of living in terror at an early age. (See Shock Totem # 1 for elaborate details on my first hallucinatory JACOB’S LADDER-style initiation, at the age of two.) So as a tiny kid, I’d force myself to watch monster movies, then graduated to Creepy Magazine and Edgar Allan Poe. By the time I hit Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Hitchcock, and Robert Bloch, I was a confirmed confronter of my own worst fears.
3. John, you are obviously associated with “splatterpunk”. People still talk about the sub-genre now. It was a revolution in horror literature, memorable because it was shocking, more graphic than the horror fiction before it, more visual and visceral. Shane, you’ve come straight in, writing badass splatter fiction and bizarro. Now graphic horror is the norm, sex and violence are to be expected. So now, when you’re writing a horror novel, how do you shock people? (SM) – Different things shock different people. There have been times when I’m sure I just wrote the sickest piece of fiction ever, only to read a review by someone saying they expected more gore. I’ve also written stories that I didn’t think were all that bad as far as extreme horror goes, only to have someone tell me it was the most disgusting thing they had ever read. So I just focus on shocking myself. If I’m smirking and chuckling as I write a certain scene, that usually means I’m onto something.
4. John was a “splatterpunk” main player, and it’s also the name of my zine, so is “splatterpunk” still relevant today, or because the violence is so common and the shock value is no longer there, is splatterpunk a thing of the past? (JS) — I gotta be honest, man. What splatterpunk means to me, and what it means to everyone else, seem to be very different things. To me, splatterpunk was a very specific and completely spontaneous eruption in the arts that took place in the mid-80s. Horror as a revolutionary act, bridling against the restrictions of the era, and throwing a wicked party in the process. Clive Barker’s BOOKS OF BLOOD, the amazing short stories of David J. Schow and Joe R. Lansdale, and the books Craig and I were doing all hit at the same time, and people were trying to figure out what to call it. Schow threw out the s-word as a joke at the World Fantasy Convention bar, and the next thing we knew, that was what we were. The word stuck because it’s a really fun word. But — and I mean no offense here — the “extreme horror” phenomenon that followed was not what I was hoping for, nor a reflection of what I was trying to do. People seized on the splat, but forgot the punk. Which is to say, the subversive element. The part that challenges society with shocking ideas, as opposed to just rubbing its face in the nearest open wound, then raping its ass till jizz squirts out its eyeballs as it drowns in the bowels of the previous victim. I don’t wanna sound like a prudish, doddering granny here, clutching her pearls as her blue hair bursts into flames. But I just gotta say: I think a lot of people missed the fucking point entirely. It’s not just about how horrible you can make things. It’s about what it means. Why it matters. And what it says about us as a species.
5. Are horror films still shocking? (SM) – Yes. I’m pretty sure my jaw hung through the entire length of A Serbian Film. But beyond just extreme horror movies, one of the most memorable shocking scenes this year was The Red Wedding in A Game of Thrones. Purely a fantasy show. But after that scene, it was all anyone could talk about. They had YouTube videos of people’s reactions as they watched it. The reason why? We had come to love these characters. We couldn’t believe, didn’t want to believe, that these horrible things were happening to them because we had grown to know them, had spent so much time with them. In order to really shock anyone, you have to have a solid story and believable characters. That way, when the shit hits the fan, your readers will feel it on a much deeper level. (JS) — Shane, I LOVE YOU! And love the fuck out of your answer. Because that cuts straight to the heart of it. While I am stunned by the brute animal audacity of films like THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2, I think a lot of the best, most well-dialed horror moments are currently showing up in other genres, where they’ve stolen our licks and intensity but haven’t forgotten the people or the point. There are a couple of scenes in last year’s snappy sf film LOOPER that shook, awed, and rocked me harder than most horror fiction or film.
6. Horror blew up in the 70’s and 80’s, now it’s the norm, with TV shows like The Walking Dead, Dexter, True Blood and American Horror Story being as popular as ever. So why is it, when you go into a book store there are hardly any horror novels and they’re hidden away, out of sight? (Yet at the same time Stephen King is bigger than ever). (SM) – I’ll never understand this. People love to be scared, have always loved the thrill of being safely afraid. Yet the term horror is being shunned. I’ve heard it called the H word, for fuck’s sake. We can call it a thriller or a mystery, and then it’s all good. But not horror. Anything but horror. I just don’t get it. (JS) — The great cartoonist/author Gahan Wilson defined horror as the geek tent at the end of the carnival midway. It’s a disreputable genre, appealing to our basest impulses: the things nice, normal people pretend to have no interest in, but are secretly dying to see. You know what’s hilarious? The majority of the trillions of people who read and love Stephen King don’t think of him as part of the genre at all. They think of him as a great writer. And they think of him as their friend. Somebody who really understands them, and is willing to go to the dark place with them. That is really the heart of his appeal. He connects. That is the secret of his power. Now let’s take those TV shows case-by-case. THE WALKING DEAD is a soap opera played in the zombie apocalypse, making use of that incredibly powerful metaphor to imbue the struggle to survive and remain human with massive meaning. Totally an idea whose time has come. That’s why it fucking works. DEXTER does the same thing with the serial killer template. And when you consider that CSI and all those shows stole their riffs from Dario Argento, it all makes sense. Horror has infiltrated crime stories better than almost anywhere. BREAKING BAD. The fucking SOPRANOS. You know what it is? It’s horror plus. TRUE BLOOD is where paranormal romance gets to fuck and shred onscreen. Nuff said. And AMERICAN HORROR STORY is, to me, the most amazing of the batch, because it takes a kitchen-sink approach to the genre, throwing every single weird, amazing, alarming and shocking thing the genre and beyond ever had to offer right in our faces, one after the other, till we don’t even know where we are. And then it hits us again. I personally think it’s genius, and the best of the shows under discussion. To sum up: horror is an emotion. It’s an ingredient, not an end in itself. And it feels like everybody’s figuring that out but us. That’s the problem.
7. One for the Skipp… Joss Whedon of Buffy is said to have based his character Spike on Rudy from The Light At The End. This must have been a huge compliment? Have you ever thought of asking Joss to make a film version of The Light At The End? Have you ever had any interest from film makers? Have you ever thought of writing a script yourself? I can see it making a great film? (A film by John Skipp, based on his novel, produced by Joss Whedon). (JS) — I think ol’ Joss has his hands full of AVENGERS right now, and probably got all his punk-vampire jollies out with Spike. But it was really fun to find out that Rudy Pasko’s influence extended that far, and that Joss was a fan. The feeling is mutual. You gotta know that LIGHT was optioned for film a year-anna-half before the book even came out, and got picked up repeatedly over the next 10-12 years. It just never got made, for one reason or another. We came very close a couple of times. But no dice. I never wrote a script for LIGHT, but Craig and I did screenplays for THE CLEANUP, DEADLINES, and ANIMALS. The last of those was finally made into a truly pathetic film a couple years back. But it wasn’t my script, and I had no personal involvement whatsoever, aside from a hilariously small check for my half of the novel. In the end, my time as a Hollywood screenwriter-for-hire was so completely horrible that I determined I’d have to become a filmmaker myself. So I spent years studying directing, producing, and pretty much every aspect of the art and business. Now I’m co-directing films with the gifted and wonderful Andrew Kasch, who I met when he interviewed me for NEVER SLEEP AGAIN: THE ELM ST. LEGACY. We’ve got a whole stack of projects in development, all based on my original scripts. And we just shot a crazed music video that’s in post right now, featuring shitloads of amazing stop-motion animation by Michael Granberry (ROBOT CHICKEN). I also appear as the bongo player. Can’t wait for this thing to come out!
8. Shane, have you ever thought of writing a screenplay? What type of horror film would you go for? Muerte Con Carne would be one hell of a movie. (SM) – I’ve considered it, and I definitely think I’ll give it a try one of these days. I like the idea of writing a screenplay based on one of my novels. I’m so addicted to writing horror fiction that it’s hard for me to think beyond that right now. I’m currently writing a cartoon show, and it’s kicking my ass. I have a tendency to make things dark, even when I’m trying not to. I imagine if I do ever write a screenplay, it will be very similar to my novels. It’s funny you mention Muerte Con Carne…hint hint.
9. Shane, you’ve have taken a year out to write full time. How has it gone? I know you have a young daughter and having to pay bills must bring with it some pressure? (SM) — Man, I wish I could take a year off of work to write full time. Can’t do it, at least not right now. I’m still new, still finding a readership. It will probably be a while before I can justify taking time off of work. Things have been harder than ever, actually, but that’s okay. That’s just life. It keeps me motivated to keep writing, to keep aiming high and thinking outside of the box. One day, writing will be my only job. It’s weird to even imagine that.
10. John, was it easier writing in the 80’s when every publisher wanted horror titles? (JS) — It wasn’t any easier to write — writing is writing, which is to say hard work — but it was waaaaaay easier to make a living doing so. That said, it’s still every bit as fun as it always was. I’m very lucky, in that I totally love the actual writing process itself.
11. What was the last book you couldn’t put down? (SM) – I read a lot, but I don’t have a lot of time anymore to just sit and read for a long stretch. However, I read Joe R. Lansdale’s Savage Season and Mucho Mojo both in a couple of days. His Hap and Leonard books are just fucking amazing. So good. I still have more of them to read, but I don’t want to burn through them too fast. (JS) — Shane’s ADDICTED TO THE DEAD. He had my nuts in a wringer pretty much all the way. And if there is such a thing as 21st century splatterpunk — where hardcore excess meets genuine human emotion and social critique — he and Adam Cesare are my current poster boys of choice. But I’d also like to point at Cody Goodfellow, Violet LeVoit, Amelia Beamer, Sarah Langan, and Jeremy Robert Johnson as some of the hardest-punchingest smart motherfuckers on the planet, breaking the rules the way I hoped they’d be broken. Brian Keene, at the top of his game. And Carlton Mellick III. Have you read APESHIT? Oh my fucking god.
12. What would be your epitaph? (SM) – I tried my best and regret nothing. (JS) — (laughs) Mine is definitely gonna be, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!”