After a hope-and-a-prayer phone call to an overseas literary agent and submitting to an NSA-esque background check, The Horror Review’s Egregious Gurnow was reluctantly given an elusive P.O. Box by which to communicate with one of the most notorious figures in horror fiction, Bentley Little. What the reviewer discovered is, contrary to popular opinion, the recluse of modern horror fiction has quite a bit to say but refuses to put on airs when saying it. Whether the topic is former publishers, film, or himself–much like his writing–Mr. Little tells it like it is and, after the dust clears, if you look closely, you might just see his lips curl into a wry smile of admiration for those left standing. Egregious Gurnow braces himself . . .
Michael Gurnow: To use a paradoxical cliché, before we begin, I would like to thank you for taking the time to sit down with me on behalf of The Horror Review. ’tis a great honor considering your notorious proclivity for privacy . . . or is it a mere case of, in Thomas Pynchon’s words, “recluse” being journalist code for “doesn’t like to talk to reporters”?
Bentley Little: To be honest, I’m not quite sure where this “recluse” reputation came from. I suppose it’s because horror is my literary preference rather than my lifestyle. I don’t go to conventions or wear black capes or decorate my house with skulls . . . I simply like to read and write supernatural fiction. But I live a normal life, hang out with my friends and family, am a pretty visible part of my community. I’m not J.D. Salinger, hiding out inside my compound and eschewing all personal contact.
MG: On that note, and to get an often-posed question definitely resolved, why do you abstain from maintaining a website or even an email account?
BL: I’m a writer, not a publicist. The Internet’s great, I suppose, if you want to hype yourself and promote your work–but that’s not my job. I write fiction. Period. I don’t email strangers in a pathetic attempt to make cyber-friends who will buy my novels. My books are in stores, they’re available. People can buy them if they want to or not. But I’m not going to go around kissing the asses of strangers in order to further my career.
I also have to say that, like all authors, I’m a huge egotist. And if I did have access to the Internet, I’d be looking up things about myself, defending myself against detractors and generally wasting time that could be better spent writing fiction.
MG: So you agree with William Faulkner that the impetus for any creative act is the need to be recognized? What of the artistic drive? Would you write if didn’t have an audience?
BL: I’ve always written. There is, within me, a compulsive need to write fiction. Even as a child, I would spend my spare time writing stories. And, yes, even if I didn’t have an audience, I would be writing, shoving the pages into a drawer or a trunk or a closet. So I don’t agree that the impetus for any creative act is the need to be recognized. At the same time, the fact that I went beyond writing for myself, that I actually sent my work out and endured rejection and continued on, does indicate a certain amount of arrogance. I assumed–as all published writers too–that my fiction was worthy of being published, that it was better than the fiction others were submitting. To be a published author means you have to have a huge ego. But at least I recognize that in myself. Too many other writers don’t.
MG: Interesting points. Indeed, the creative impulse cannot, and in many cases, refuses to be thwarted. I think this is Philip Kaufman’s masterstroke with his rendition of the Marquis de Sade in Quills. We see a man, not driven by his hedonistic obsessions first and foremost, but instead by his desire to create. However, from what you’ve stated in respect to a writer’s ego, isn’t this the same with any craft? No one would attempt to engage in a public trade out if the person didn’t house enough self-assurance in regard to the task in question. If I didn’t think I could flip burgers to the public’s satisfaction and, as a consequence, didn’t believe I could take the scrutiny, I wouldn’t apply at a fast food outlet. Do you think writers get stuck with the label of “arrogant” due to the fact that many of those applying the criticism may well be wannabe scribes and are just afraid of rejection?
BL: No, I genuinely think we are arrogant, as is any artist. I think what differentiates us from people performing other jobs, like flipping burgers, is that we are not providing goods or services, we are creating something. We are taking an idea that we had and making it manifest. And I truly believe that for a human being to think that his or her ideas are worthy of dissemination is arrogant. Not that this is a bad thing. We wouldn’t have the novels, poems, painting, or music that we do if artists hadn’t believed in the worth and importance of their work. I would also venture to say that this arrogance often makes writers and other artists very difficult to live with.
Your work evidences an avid interest in the notion of hierarchies, often manifested in the form of Kafka-esque bureaucracies, both social as well as financial. The Association, The Store, The Ignored, and The Policy are highly satirical in their approach and treatment of such entities, especially in the guise of forced conformity. How far would you be willing to state your critical assessment of such goes, meaning are you ultimately proposing implicit anarchist sensibilities in your work or even Ludditism or Primitivism considering your apprehension with technology?
BL: I would simply say that I’m a firm believer in individualism. I’ve never been a joiner, I hate clubs and committees, and there’s nothing more frightening to me than groupthink. It’s a personal–rather than political–stance, but it’s led a lot of people to assume that I’m a Libertarian. As a result of being born and raised in the west, I probably do have some of those rugged individualist tendencies. But, for the record, I’m a liberal Democrat, which means that I don’t think the government should be spying on me or proscribing my sexual practices or censoring my reading material, but I do think that it should be used to promote social justice, competently provide public services, and help the poor.
MG: I’m gathering you’re not a huge fan of the Bush administration? What’s your perspective on the last seven years?
BL: George Bush has been a complete and utter disaster. He is, by far, the worst president of my lifetime. It will take years, perhaps decades, to undo the damage his corrupt and incompetent administration has done to the environment and to our standing internationally. After September 11, we had the sympathy of the entire world. Everyone was on our side. If, at that time, Bush had met with foreign leaders and urged the heads of state to make a concerted and united effort to find, capture, and prosecute the criminals responsible for this and other acts of international terrorism, we would be living in a much different world today. But instead, he had to declare a unilateral “war” on terror and now we’re in an Orwellian state of perpetual war against an amorphous and ill-defined enemy. This had led, not only to the killing of thousands of American troops and the gutting of our civil liberties, but it has earned us the hatred of people all over the world. People who sympathized with us now see us as bullies. It’s a sad and depressing state of affairs. So, no, I’m not a fan of the Bush administration.
MG: Many of your works are obviously “love letters” to persons or groups from your past. As everyone knows, art can serve a cathartic purpose for its audience but, just as readily, for its creator as well. However, for those readers who do not fashion the occasional “fuck you” piece–be it on the page, screen, or on canvas–how difficult is it to maintain artistic focus and keep the rage from superceding the writing? Do you first purge and then shape or do you attempt to get a more objective handle on matters prior to setting pen to paper?
BL: I write from the gut. So, no, I don’t “shape” my fiction to make it more palatable. I trust my instincts and I assume that if I’m having a problem with chain stores or a homeowner’s association or an insurance company, a lot of other people are too. I think of these novels as “observational horror.” I sort of observe a social or societal problem and then try to fashion a narrative that addresses it. Generally speaking, my sensibilities seem to be mainstream enough that readers identify with my approach and empathize with my protagonists.
MG: Interesting. Do you think you’ve ever went too far in any of your works where the audience stepped back in relation to the subject matter or how it was being presented? More specifically, your critics and readers seem to favor your satires above your more explicitly horrific materials. Do you see a correlation or do you account for this bifurcation in a different manner?
BL: Actually, critics prefer the more satiric, socially-conscious novels, but readers prefer the straight horror tales. Sales figures don’t lie. Which is why my publisher likes it better if I lay off the preaching and stick to straightforward scares. So I try to mix it up. You can’t please all the people all the time, and I kind of ping-pong back and forth between my two constituencies, depending on the ideas that occur to me. And, yes, I think my hardcore horror has turned off some readers. Stephen King was carrying a copy of my novel, The House, when he was struck by a van. It was mentioned in USA Today, and sales took off. To this day, that’s my best selling book. But a lot of those people never came back. I think the explicit sex and violence turned off a lot of those general readers, and I have no doubt that if King had been carrying a more benign or less graphic novel like The Ignored, I would have a much larger readership today.
That said, I’ve made no effort to tone down the sex and violence. That’s what I write. I hope people like it, but if they don’t . . . too bad.
MG: You have noted on previous occasions that you are a voracious moviegoer. As such, what are a handful of films, horror or no, that you think should be watched. Which would you humor as being potential Top Ten candidates for you personally?
BL: This is something that’s very subjective and I’m afraid my answer would vary depending on the day or my mood. So I can’t give you a definitive reply. Off the top of my head, I would say a few of the movies that made a huge impact on me both personally, and as a writer, were Robert Wise’s version of The Haunting, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, the original version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (seen in the theater with a printed program and no onscreen credits), and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But, of course, there are dozens more that I could name, and there are even crappy little forgotten films that have individual moments that still stick with me today. So this is a very tough question.
MG: Name one of your favorite “moments” where a particular scene worked where the film itself did not.
BL: Dungeon of Harrow. It’s a poorly made, no-budget movie that I saw as a kid. But there’s a scene in which the protagonist is chained to a rock in the titular dungeon, and he’s looking at a metal door with a small opening in it. There are cobwebs all around. As he stares, a disfigured hand at the end of an emaciated arm stretches outward from the opening toward him. There’s horrible, constant laughter sounding from behind the door as the hand stretches out. It scared the hell out of me as a child, and I have goose bumps right now thinking of it. Seen again, it might not be that scary, but in my mind it remains truly frightening, and it had a huge impression on me. As did a scene in the sci-fi flick Fiend Without a Face. That movie’s about invisible monsters that are basically brains with attached spinal cords. But in the middle of the film, there’s a scene where a soldier disappears while looking for the monster. I haven’t seen it in decades, but I remember disjointed shots from bizarre angles as the soldier flees from the unseen monsters and gets lost in the wilderness. Soon afterward, scientists and military brass are at a meeting when they hear this terrible echoing cry. It’s a primal, truly terrifying sound, and it gets louder and louder until this figure of a man staggers into the room. It’s the missing soldier, only he looks burned and somehow retarded. He opens his mouth and howls.
Like I said, these aren’t great films, but they have scenes that have stayed with me forever. There are a lot of movies like that.
MG: Peter Medak, whom our readers will recall directed one of the most spine-tingling haunted house narrative in cinematic history, The Changeling starring George C. Scott, recently set your short story, “The Washingtonians,” to film as an installment in the Showtime series, Masters of Horror. How do you think your work transversed from page to screen?
BL: First of all, I loved The Changeling. Haunted house films are the ones that scare me the most and those seventies movies like The Changeling, Burnt Offerings, and The Legend of Hell House hold a special place in my heart because I saw them at the perfect impressionable age. But I’m not a good person to ask about “The Washingtonians.” I’m too close to it and when I watched the show, all I could see were the things that were changed. That said, I enjoyed the first half of the episode but disliked the ending. Overall, it was a little more over-the-top than I was expecting or would have liked. The satiric elements were there in the story itself, I’m not sure viewers needed to be beat over the head with them.
MG: What is it about the haunted house narrative which continues to pique your interest? Are there any subgenres which don’t work for you personally?
BL: I’m not sure why I think haunted houses are so frightening. I suppose it’s partially because the scares are relatable–we’ve all heard strange, unexplainable sounds in the dark–and they occur in a place that’s supposed to be safe, our home. It’s an intrusion of the horrific into our most intimate space. As a child, I found such films particularly frightening because after watching a movie in a theater about a scary house, I would go home. To my house. My dark house. Where I was expected to immediately fall asleep.
As for any subgenres that do not work for me, I’m a bit burned out on vampires, and I’ve never really been a fan of serial killers. I know a lot of people who think killers and escaped mental patients are frightening because they “could happen.” But things that “could happen” don’t produce in me the frisson that the supernatural does.
MG: Many critics of the Masters of Horror segment comment on how original the premise of “The Washingtonians” is considering the quagmire of rote plots which are being revisited time and time again by dubbed masters. How did you derive such a fascinating premise?
BL: A guy I used to work with discovered a trunk of old correspondence in the attic of his mother after she died. Amazingly enough, it included letters that members of his family had received from presidents and historically important individuals in the 1800s. The local newspaper did a story on him and he ended up having the entire lot appraised and sold. That got me thinking about shocking revelations that might be revealed from such a discovery and for some reason the words, “I will kill your children and eat them. Upon finishing, I will fashion utensils of their bones,” occurred to me. I wrote the story from there.
MG: Have you had any other works optioned that we can look forward to in the future? Which would you ultimately like to see set to screen?
BL: Currently, only two novels are under option. The Ignored is in the hands of Dutch director Arie Hirsh, and Strike Entertainment, the production company behind the film Children of Men, has optioned The Store. But I’ve been around the block a few times and will be surprised if anything comes of either. As for which of my novels I would like to see transferred to the screen, I think I would be happiest if The Mailman was made into a film.
MG: Why The Mailman in particular?
BL: I like the premise of the story. Due to the fact that everyone receives mail and mailmen physically go to everyone’s house every day, there’s a universality to it. It’s the first of my satiric novels and is important to me for that reason as well. Also, I set the story in my parent’s house. The town is our town, the family is my family (well, my brother and my parents; I took myself out of the equation). So in a lot of way, it’s my most personal work.
MG: Going back, are there any MoH episodes which you enjoyed and for what reasons?
BL: My favorite from last season was the last one. I don’t know the name of it, but it was the Japanese episode set on a boat [Takashi Miike’s “Imprint”]. Those Asian women with long black hair have become ubiquitous the last few years, but damn if they don’t scare the crap out of me every time.
MG: It is stated that you were “discovered” by Dean Koontz, while Stephen King is a consistent vocal supporter of your work. As I’m sure fans would like to know, like the Masters of Horror who gather together once in a blue moon, do horror writers ever take time to chat, be it in droves like the aforementioned directors or merely by way of a handful of scribes enjoying Sunday evening with their wives? Without prying too much, are you friends or acquaintances with any other writers?
BL: I’ve chatted with various horror writers over the phone, but the only ones I’ve seen socially are Dean Koontz and Richard Laymon. In fact, the first time my then-girlfriend and I were invited over to the Koontzs’ house with the Laymons, I was such a rube that I brought along a sack of books for them both to sign. I figured it might be my only chance and thought I’d take advantage of the situation. Now I just look back and cringe with embarrassment when I think about it.
MG: But you’re a fan of King as he is of you. Have you two never met in person?
BL: Another embarrassing moment. This one from last year. Stephen King was speaking as part of a Writer’s Block series in Los Angeles. A friend of a friend had tickets, and so four of us went to see him. I brought along a couple of books in case he was going to be signing afterward. Unfortunately, an announcement was made that there would be no book signing, that immediately after his talk, King would be leaving. So we sat there, it was great, he told fascinating stories, and at the end of the presentation, King took questions from the audience. One of the people with me jokingly said that she would ask, “What do you think of Bentley Little?” so that I would have a chance to meet him, but we all agreed that was a bad idea.
The event was being held in a converted movie theater. After it was over, King passed through the curtains that led to one of the side exits that were on either side of the stage. We were about to leave when my friend said, “He’s still there.” I looked, and as the curtains blew open slightly, I saw Stephen King standing alone in an alcove next to the exit. There were no guards or handlers, and no one else seemed to have noticed, so I pushed my way through the curtains and introduced myself. He must have thought I was a stalker at first, but he recognized my name, we shook hands, he introduced me to his editor, then his ride arrived, the back door was open, and he was gone.
So, yes, I met him. Sort of.
MG: Wonderful story. In retrospect, do you wish you would have put the question to King during his presentation?
BL: Definitely not.
MG: You have mentioned that The University was inspired by a series of suicides that occurred while you were enrolled at Cal State Fullerton, where you earned an undergraduate degree in Communications and a Master’s in English and Comparative Literature. Like Michael Chabon with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, you did the impossible and published your thesis, The Revelation, which later earned you the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. What was this experience like? Were you aware of the rarity of what you were achieving at the time or where you merely attempting to do what writers do, get published?
BL: The Revelation was my Master’s thesis, but it took a lo-o-o-ng time to get published. I was so arrogant that I thought I would graduate, sell my novel, and quickly become a rich and famous writer. For six months after I graduated, I only took temp jobs because I expected the big bucks to start rolling in any day. But it took me a year to find an agent, two more years to sell the novel, and another year for it to come out. By that time, I was gainfully employed as a technical writer for a Southern California municipality. So while it might be a rarity, and I might appear very fortunate, getting that first book published seems like a long and winding road to me.
MG: But still, you must be proud because, as you’ve said, most of us that come out of an M.A. program believe we’ve penned literary gold and that it is now the world’s responsibility to recognize our genius. Yet you had a publishable text whereas 99% of graduate school grads think they have something worth printing only to discover years later that it is anything but.
Why did you shift from journalism as an undergrad to English as a grad student?
BL: Well, I always wanted to write fiction. In fact, I always had written fiction. But it was a weird, secretive thing that I didn’t tell anyone about. In fact, I remember my parents sitting down with me as a teenager and giving me this very serious talk because they’d discovered part of a first-person story that I’d left in my room and that they thought was a suicide note! So writing was always sort of a secret dream. In college, I started submitting my work. As it happened, I sold my first two stories right after earning my BA in Communications. I was about to enter the Master’s program in political science, but I decided to make the leap and give this writing thing a shot. So I switched my major to English and never looked back.
MG: What were you planning to ultimately do since you had your sights set for a Master’s in political science?
BL: I was going to be a reporter, and I figured the political science degree would help me land a job at a better paper. I didn’t want to spend my career covering city council meetings and rodeos for a small town weekly. Also, I was having fun at college and didn’t want to go out into the real world yet. I wanted to continue to hang out and take classes.
MG: You are well known for retaining your artistic integrity and being unrepentant and never going back upon the refusal to meet financially-driven editorial expectations. From what I understand, this stems from a very unfortunate incident in the publishing of Death Instinct. Was this the genesis for your hard-nosed reputation within the publishing industry? Could you expound upon what occurred and how it effected your aesthetic outlook?
BL: I suppose my refusal to bend over and take it when my publisher screwed me with Death Instinct is the reason I have such a reputation. In fact, a lot of other writers told me at the time that I should shut up and not make waves or, essentially, I’d never work again. Their attitude was that I should be grateful to be published at all and should happily accept whatever the publisher dished out. My position was that I was a good writer, my publisher was lucky to have me, and I should be treated decently. As it happened, I still had a day job at the time, so I had “fuck you” money. I could afford to take a stand. So I did.
Basically, what happened was that my second novel, The Mailman, had tanked, so my editor at Signet told me to use a pseudonym on my next novel, Death Instinct. He said the chain stores wouldn’t stock my new book because of the poor sales of the previous book. I argued that they would if Signet pushed me. I won the Bram Stoker Award, I told him, things were going well. Give me a chance to build on my small audience. “No,” he said.
We went back and forth.
Signet was contractually obligated to publish the novel. So, finally, I was told by my editor that if I used my own name, they would print about 5,000 copies, list it in the back of the little-seen Onyx catalog, and no one would ever buy the book. If I changed my name, however, they would give me a great cover, I would receive prime placement in the Signet catalog, they’d print between 80,000 and 100,000 copies, and everything would be wonderful. I’m embarrassed to say that I caved. But the book came out with a crappy cover, was listed at the back of the catalog, and I never saw a single copy in any store. Of course, I trashed my editor in any forum I could.
Signet still had first refusal rights on my next book, which meant that I had to show it to them before anyone else and if they wanted it, they could buy it. My editor told me that horror was dead. He suggested I write a police procedural since that was the next trend. So I wrote The Summoning, a hardcore horror story about a Chinese vampire. They refused the novel, as I’d hoped they would, and I was free. But horror really was dead and I ended up selling the novel to Zebra, low man on the publishing totem pole, for a pathetic advance. I thought my career was over and after the HWA [Horror Writer’s Association] newsletter wrote a puff piece about my editor and what a great horror-loving guy he was, I wrote a rebuttal explaining how, with his help, I’d gone from an award-winning up-and-comer to a fading might-have-been. But, as luck would have it, the president of Signet read The Summoning, liked it, and asked why I wasn’t still with the company. My agent called, said they wanted me back, and I said, “Tell them to drop dead. I’ll rot in Hell before ever working with Signet again.” He called back a few days later and said that my editor had been fired and they were willing to pay real money.
I said, “Let’s talk.”
I’ve been with Signet ever since.
MG: Any idea why people didn’t respond to The Mailman?
BL: They did–eventually. But in its original incarnation, the cover was bland and it received no distribution. The only store I ever saw it in was a bookstore owned by a friend of mine. The horror market really was pretty soft at that moment as well. I place most of the blame on the cover, however. That cliché, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” is a load of crap. People do judge books by their covers, especially the mainstream readers, and over the years my sales have fluctuated tremendously, with those books featuring eye-catching artwork far outselling those that blend in with the other covers on the surrounding shelves.
MG: Contrary to popular opinion, and as evidenced by a radio interview you’d given shortly after the publication of The Association, you are a fairly amiable guy who merely refuses to kowtow in the wake of freedom of expression and the upholding of individual and granted rights. Do you view your industry image as being unduly harsh or merited under the circumstances in which they appear?
BL: I don’t really know what my “industry image” is. I gather I’m supposed to be some sort of hostile recluse. But I don’t really care, and when I do hear things about myself, I’m invariably amused.
MG: But, as you’ve said, you don’t do the rounds that most writers make, thus the public jumps to conclusions, perhaps forcing an allure, thereby paving the way to fashion you as “mysterious.” It’s almost as if your audience is doing your PR for you in some respects. Yet most publishers contractually demand a certain amount of client-led publicity in order to retain a slot on their docket. How’d you get Signet to consent to not having you play the publication game as it were?
BL: I’ve never had that discussion with Signet. Besides, I’ve always felt that the best publicity is good word-of-mouth. If I write a good novel, the people who read it will tell their friends and the word will spread. Which is basically what has happened. The idea that sitting at a folding table in front of some mall bookstore, hoping random passersby will be intrigued enough by my appearance to buy my book, seems ludicrous to me. And attending horror conventions is preaching to the converted. Those people know about me already and have probably decided whether they like my fiction or not. As far as I’m concerned, the best thing I can do for my career is to put out strong fiction.
MG: Going back to The Ignored, one of your more favored novels by both fan and critic alike, your publisher did not initially approve of the text. Why was this and what transpired prior to it appearing in print? Where you initially–or did your publisher give you reason to pause in this regard–apprehensive about the story? Are you surprised at the reception of the novel? What novel or novels did you have high expectations for which were not ultimately reciprocated by your audience?
BL: I always believed in The Ignored. Everyone around me had doubts, but it came out just the way I wanted and I was very happy with it. The novel was written after The Summoning and actually my editor at Zebra thought it was terrific. She wanted to give me decent money and give the book a real push. But then she quit and the editor who came after her didn’t have the same level of interest. He offered me an insulting amount for it, promised no promotional support, and I turned him down. I tried to sell it elsewhere, but no one seemed interested. So I shelved the novel. I thought it was strong, I thought it would last, and I figured that I’d try again a few years later. Once I got established at Signet and my books were selling well, I submitted The Ignored to them and they liked it. It got me the best reviews of my career and hasn’t been out of print since.
Dispatch was a similar book in many ways, and I had high hopes for it, but it didn’t sell that well and was hardly reviewed at all. Stephen King liked it though! The Store, also, I thought was a very strong and timely book, but when it came out, it sort of fell through the cracks. Over the long haul, however, it’s done quite well, and it continues to sell today. So I can’t complain.
MG: Why do you think that people had to slowly warm to The Store considering many now cite the novel to be your masterpiece?
BL: That one was totally out of my hands. There’d just been some big shake-ups in the management of NAL/Signet, and a lot of books that came out during that transitional time didn’t get the push they needed. In regard to The Store, review copies weren’t sent out, distribution was spotty, and generally speaking, the momentum I’d been building was lost. But once things settled down at the company internally, my career was soon back on track.
MG: Horror is often viewed as the bastard genre next to porn, both in film as well as in literature, evidence of such being when Stephen King won the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Book Awards, an uproar occurred followed from what Orson Scott Card labeled the “academic-literary elite.” How much of their argument do you believe to be the result of their earnest assessment of the quality of King’s prose verses the fact that he works in the popular genre of horror fiction? What are your feelings upon such exclusivity?
BL: I’m not sure the King backlash was horror-related. I think it had more to do with his immense popularity. There’s a certain mindset in literary circles that if fiction is popular and appeals to the masses, it can’t be good. I would venture to say that there was a good bit of jealousy involved as well. But you’re right, horror is the bastard stepchild of literature and, next to romance, is probably the least-respected genre. As a horror writer, my feelings on this vacillate. On the one hand, I get angry that horror is not given its critical due. The idea that the literary merit of a novel can be determined by its subject matter and that supernatural metaphors have no validity is ignorant (it’s also a very anti-intellectual attitude, thought it’s the so-called “intellectuals” who are promoting it). It pisses me off. On the other hand, I kind of like being part of an outside, outlaw genre. It seems appropriate in a way. So I’m of two minds on the subject.
MG: You make some interesting observations here. I agree that academia likes to separate itself from the lay reader by eschewing anything that is fairly popular, which all but declares that “we” can’t revel in what “they” obviously have an appreciation for,” yet critics like to toss in the token best seller for the sake of image so that bias can’t be as readily cited.
Considering you are baring the double burden of maintaining the oftentimes thankless post of a horror writer, atop being a satirist–the latter being a mode which, though it is in its essence a corrective methodology, many label it as an literary byline by which to espouse nihilistic cynicism–do you ever have the urge to throw your hands up in the air? What keeps you from taking the easy route and producing the near effortless-by-comparison, overly sensationalistic pulp horror tome, which–as I’m sure you’ll agree–would sell more readily but not necessarily challenge its reader as much?
BL: The simple answer is that I write what I write. I’m not overly concerned with being critically appreciated or massively popular. As long as I can continue to publish, as long as readers support and enjoy my work, as long as I’m free to write what I want, I’m happy. My priority is remaining true to myself and putting out work that I and my readers respect.
MG: Do you ever fear that one day your work might deviate enough from the popular mindset where you may not have enough of an audience? Going back to your time with The Mailman/Death Instinct/The Summoning, how did you react to the idea that you might not have a publisher? Is it ultimately a greater concern of being able to sleep at night with integrity in tack or doing a job you love? Will concessions ever be humored again if the need arises?
BL: I’ll make small concessions, sure. I have enough ideas in my head that if my publisher prefers one over another, I’d do it. But I won’t allow anyone to dictate subject matter to me. I won’t write, say, a romantic vampire novel because my publisher feels romantic vampire novels are hot. And I’ve set up my life in such a way that I can afford to stick to my principles. My wife has kept her job so that even if there’s a downturn in sales, it won’t break us. And, yes, I fully expect there to come a day when no one wants to read my work. Trends come and go. It’s inevitable.
I guess what it comes down to is that my integrity is not for sale. If there comes a day when I’m given the choice between selling out and quitting, I’ll quit. I had a day job before, and I have no problems with doing it again. And the truth is that I’ve come much further in this business than I ever thought I would, so even if everything ended tomorrow, I would still die a happy man.
MG: When you say trend, are you referring to your writing or the genre as a whole?
BL: I’m referring specifically to my writing. There will always be horror novels and there will always be an audience for them. But just as the work of many writer from the past has fallen out of favor, so too will mine.
MG: Maintaining the current strand of thought, many “academic-literary elite” chuckle due to the fact that they believe that, outside of a cult following (which, in most cases, has a limited lifespan), they are the sole purveyors of literary immortality. From their humble perspective, without their learn’d consent, no writer will last beyond his or her popular print lifetime. Yet, we are just now seeing instances such as H.P. Lovecraft, who is beginning to see the light of day in college anthologies (to say nothing of the recent–and, understandably, controversial–Library of America edition of his work), all of which being a direct consequence of the writer’s devoted following outside of academia throughout the decades. Without them, Card’s Elite would have never been permitted the opportunity to deem Lovecraft worthy of “esteemed” literary posterity because he would have otherwise went out of print long ago. Being a college grad, someone who has worked in the industry for years, and whom irony is never lost upon, what are your opinions upon this class polarity?
BL: Charles Dickens.
That’s my answer when so-called academics attempt to disparage popular writers. He was the J.K. Rowling of his day. The masses waited for each installment of his serials. Was he respected by the literary gatekeepers of his day? No. But time has told.
And the fact remains that, as I said earlier, horror is an outlaw genre. It doesn’t need to be respected in order to survive. Frankenstein and Dracula have not only never gone out of print, but their monsters are so archetypal and so ubiquitous that they’ve been translated into film characters and cartoons and commercial pitchmen. Everyone on the fucking planet knows who Frankenstein and Dracula are! How many other literary creations can you say that about? So while certain precious critically-approved works of literature are like orchids and need to be tended in the rarified atmosphere of academia’s ivory towers to survive, horror novels are like weeds, scrapping with other plants on the ground, kicking ass and taking names. They may not be well-respected, but they survive. I take great comfort in that.
MG: Indeed, we do snicker at the notion that yesteryear’s monsters have, are, and will continue to be better known and more recognizable than Holden Caulfield, Jake Barnes, or Jay Gatsby. Yet Dracula is still lambasted as a work of pulp writing by the academic elite whereas Frankenstein is seen as a prophetic, socially-conscious masterpiece. Any thoughts on why this is? Is it a matter of the latter housing greater potentiality or do you think that Stoker didn’t execute his character as well as he could considering the iconographic nature the figure nonetheless possesses? Is it just a simple matter of favoritism and that Dracula deserves his dues?
BL: I think it is favoritism. With its fragmented form and multiple viewpoints, Dracula is actually a much more modern novel than Frankenstein. I think it’s also much easier for contemporary readers to get through. The simultaneously stilted-yet-florid language of Frankenstein is much tougher to read these days. Stoker was also a professional novelist while Mary Shelley was a too-hip teenager hanging with a literary crowd far above her level. I think that shows in both of their work. But Mary Shelley’s marriage to Percy, her association with Byron, and the undoubtedly apocryphal tale of Frankenstein’s genesis has given that novel much more literary cache.
They’re both very important pieces of fiction, however, and whatever the merits of the actual writing, both books have survived for a reason.
MG: So you attribute some of Frankenstein’s popularity as being due to its association with established writers of the time whereas Stoker was working alone so to speak and that the novel is somewhat turgid because Mary was attempting to write alongside the surrounding collective instead of for herself and her text?
BL: Not precisely. I think Frankenstein’s popularity and critical respect are deserved–but I don’t think they should come at the expense of Dracula, which I believe is the better novel. Sure, it has laughable, ludicrous moments, but it’s also alive in a way that Shelley’s more pretentious and self-important work isn’t, and I think its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality is a direct precursor to the fiction of modern master of horror, such as Stephen King. I firmly believe that Frankenstein is granted more critical respect than Dracula because of who Mary Shelley was, rather than because of any intrinsic merits of the novel.
MG: Going back to something you said earlier, I like the analogy that horror is like a weed: Something that some people would like to see eradicated in its entirety yet will nevertheless persist. How do you account for the genre’s dogged perseverance? Do you think that Lovecraft is correct, that we are innately reacting to fear on a primitive, Jungian level?
BL: I do think that’s correct. I’ve always thought that fear is man’s natural state. It’s why we have armies and policemen, why we band together in cities and countries, why we jump when there’s a loud noise nearby, why we lock our doors and leave our porch lights on at night. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: I don’t care who you are, if you were stripped naked and placed somewhere alone in the dark and you heard a sound nearby, you would not laugh, you would not be excited, you would not be aroused or feel romantic, you would be afraid. It’s the one gut reaction that we all share, that can be counted on to kick in at the same specific times for everyone in the world. It’s why jump shots in horror movies are so effective. They’re easy, they’re predictable . . . but they work. The fear in us is very close to the surface, and it doesn’t take much to bring it out (as George Bush has been proving for the last six fear-mongering years). That’s why horror has always been around and always will be around.
MG: Indubitably, the higher echelons of critics have also been reluctant to deal with your work due to its graphic nature, sometimes resulting in scathing, brusque appraisals, not unlike their assessments of such writers as Samuel Delany, Marquis de Sade, William Burroughs, Lautreamont, Matthew Stokoe, Octave Mirbeau, Hermann Ungar, Kathe Koja, or Bret Easton Ellis. Do you have an interest in Decadent Literature or are your “gorror” moments isolated instances driven by plot necessity?
BL: I’m not sure I have an interest in “Decadent Literature” per se, but I have read several of the authors you mentioned. Some works I liked and some I didn’t. I’m not squeamish in either my reading or writing.
MG: With that, let’s break for a second and, if you would, shoot from the hip with the following artists.
BL: Okay. Shoot.
MG: Lucio Fulci.
BL: Not a big fan. I know I’m in the minority, but I just don’t get most Italian horror. I’m a huge fan on Fellini, Antonioni, and several other non-genre Italian filmmakers, but the horror directors don’t speak to me in the same way. I become sort of visually dyslexic when I watch their films. I’m sitting there, paying attention, and then all of a sudden it’s as if I fell asleep for a few moments, or as though several minutes of film were removed from the reel. I’m watching the actions but I don’t understand how we got to where we are. I love surrealism and have no problem with disjointed or fragmented narratives, but something about the scene transitions in Italian horror movies leaves me feeling confused. I’m not disoriented in a good way, it just appears to me that there’s been some sort of technical problem. A strange reaction, I know, but there it is.
MG: So you suspect that something in the editing is jarring transmission so to speak?
BL: I have no idea what causes this reaction. It could be the editing, but I suspect not. I just think that I’m on a different wavelength than directors such as Fulci and Argento.
MG: John Carpenter.
BL: I love John Carpenter. I think he’s the most consistent of all the major horror directors. He has the talent and ability to work with low budgets or high budgets and create something terrific either way. Even if he weren’t a director, he would be a god to me because he wrote the theme from Halloween, the most iconic horror movie music of all time. I love his work.
MG: Agreed. Regardless of how culture has treated Mike Myers in relation to his iconographic peers, we cannot deny the effectiveness of his theme music.
What about H.P. Lovecraft?
BL: I admire Lovecraft but I don’t really like him. The purple prose grates on me, and while I love many of the ideas behind the stories, their actual execution usually leaves me cold. I probably respect him more as a critic than a writer of fiction.
MG: So thumbs up to Supernatural Horror in Literature then?
MG: Thomas Ligotti.
BL: I haven’t read enough of his work to form an opinion.
MG: Some critics cite your work as being “too autobiographical,” meaning that you use the ruse of everyday life as a springboard for the premise of many of your novels. What do you say to this? Ignoring the possibility of leaning the question, would you go as so far as to offer the title of the genre you work within as a metaphor for your perspective upon certain facets of life, i.e. the “horror” of economic tyranny at the hands of corporate conglomerations?
BL: What do I say to this? Fuck your mama!
Seriously, many of my works are autobiographical, in their thematic concerns, if not in plot specifics. I write about what concerns me. Most authors do that, however, so I don’t really think of it as a negative. I’m not even sure that the critics who have noted it see it as necessarily pejorative. As for your description of my work, I think it’s apt. Stephen King very flatteringly referred to me as “the horror poet of ordinary things” and other critics have said that I write of “the horror of everyday life” or “the horror of modern life” or “the horrors of society.” I cop to all of that. That’s what I do.
MG: Again, we find that criticism is very selective for we applaud James Joyce’s implementation of his actual life in Ulysses yet lambaste the horror writer who does the same.
Considering the theoretical depth and scope of your work, do you read or have a background philosophy? You have mentioned previously you are an avid reader within your genre. Do you also expose yourself to other forms and mediums of writing on a regular basis?
BL: I’m not as much of a horror reader as I used to be. It’s probably because I spend so much of my time thinking about horror and writing about horror–it’s my job after all–that when it comes time to read for pleasure, I often find myself going elsewhere. I do have a wide range of interests, however, and enjoy most forms of fiction, so I can’t really narrow down my preferences. I will say that I very seldom read nonfiction.
MG: Any non-horror recommendations?
BL: There are far too many to name. Glancing over at my bookshelf, I would say that Larry McMurtry, John Irving, Anne Tyler, Richard Ford, and Jim Harrison are all consistently good writers. It’s sort of a genre novel, but Ken Grimwood’s Replay is one of my favorite books of all time. Everyone should read it.
MG: What did you do for a living while you were still attempting to establish yourself as a full-time writer? From one writer to another, do you find that the lack of a regimented 9-to-5 work routine to be a relief or something which perpetually tempts lethargy?
BL: I held a variety of part-time and temp jobs. The longest job I had was as a technical writer for Costa Mesa City Hall in Southern California. I worked there for eight years and hated every minute of it. A lot of The Ignored comes from that experience. As for the lack of regular hours, I love it! Ever since I was a child, my goal has been not to have a real job, not to have to go to work. I’ve achieved that. I’m living my own dream, and everything else is gravy.
MG: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
BL: Writing is really the only skill I have, so if I was not writing fiction, I’d probably be writing nonfiction. I was trained as a journalist and spent quite a few years writing for a small town weekly newspaper. If I wasn’t a horror writer, I’d probably be a reporter.
MG: And, to close, the million-dollar question: What is your ultimate goal with your writing? What would you like to see accomplished through your prose by the end of the day?
BL: When I first started out, I definitely had artistic aspirations. There’s a scene in The Seventh Seal that articulates pretty well my position back then. In the film, a squire goes into a church and sees an artist painting a fresco. The painting is of horrible images and hideously disfigured people.
“Why do you paint such things?” the squire wonders.
“To scare people,” the artist replies.
“Why do you want to scare people?” the squire inquires.
“Because it makes them think,” the artist says.
“And when they think?” the squire asks.
“They become even more scared,” the artist tells him.
But I’ve become a lot less pretentious as I’ve gotten older. The truth is now my ultimate goal is to entertain people. Entertainment means more to me now than art. Yes, I have themes and concerns that I address in my work, but the most important thing to me is that readers enjoy my stories. I want my books to be like television. I want a guy working a crappy, minimum-wage job to look forward to getting off work so he can finish reading one of my novels. If my fiction could entertain someone enough that it would help him get through a boring day, I would be very happy indeed.
MG: During this day and age, this seems to be a Herculian task in-and-of itself. That said, Bentley, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with us and we look forward to more from your pen as well as, fingers crossed, getting to see The Mailman on the Big Screen. With that, one last question: Who do you envision in the titular role?
BL: I have no idea. John Malkovich optioned the novel years ago, and I think he would have been a good choice. A friend of mine suggested Steve Martin, and I could see that too. But I haven’t thought about it much and don’t really have a preference.
- Interview with Director David DeFalco (Chaos) - January 22, 2015
- Interview with Actor Nathan Baesel (Behind the Mask: ROLV) - January 22, 2015
- An Interview with Bentley Little - January 22, 2015
- So You Want to Be a Movie Critic, Heh? - January 22, 2015
- Fearful Meditations: An Annotated Bibliography of Studies in Horror Cinema - January 22, 2015
- I Can’t Discuss Glen Morgan’s New Film, [Censored] [Censored], Because Liberty Counsel Says It’s Rude: Race, Religious Tolerance, Ethics, and Aesthetics and the 21st Century Holiday Horror Film - January 22, 2015
- Roger Ebert’s Bloody Ax: An Examination of the Film Critic’s Elitist Dismissal of the Horror Film by Michael “Egregious” Gurnow - January 22, 2015
- Defending the King: An Examination of Academia’s Reaction to Stephen King Being Awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters - January 22, 2015
- Zarathustra . . . Cthulhu . Meursault: Existential Futility in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” - January 22, 2015
- The Evil - January 18, 2015