Rocky Wood is the author of numerous books on Stephen King, on whom he is a leading expert. His publications include ‘The Complete Guide To The Works Of Stephen King’, the Bram Stoker Award nominated ‘Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished, and ‘Stephen King: A Literary Companion’, which won the Award in 2011.’ He is also the author of two graphic novels, ‘Horror, Great Stories Of Fear and Their Creators’ and ‘Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times’, co-written by Lisa Morton. A freelance writer since the late 1970s, he has been published all over the English speaking world. He is also the President of the Horror Writers Association.
Rocky met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about Stephen King and Erich Von Daniken.
Tell us about your new book.
‘Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times’ is my second graphic novel. I normally write non-fiction, so my two graphic novels have both been based on fact. And talking about fact, there was no need to make much up here – the history of witch hunting is so awful the biggest challenge was what to leave out. The tortures and the instruments of torture, the sheer hatred of women, the greed, the politics, the fanatics all made for a gruesome tale. What I did discover is that our ‘popular’ view of the witch-hunting phenomenon is flawed – it really does miss the flow of history. The fact is that the early Church actually prosecuted those who believed there were witches (this was because believing in witches was ‘pagan’ and therefore had to be stamped out). The slow drift of the charge of witchcraft into full blown heresy. The socio-economic and political factors such as plague, the Reformation and land grabs. The ease of spreading fear in the populace. The economic damage full blown witch-hunting fervor could bring. The fact that ‘ducking’ wasn’t widely used and is misrepresented in our popular literature and on our screens as a product of the dark ages. The influences a few fanatics can have. The impact the invention of printing had. And more. All of these things we manage to reveal in the book. And it was a great experience working with such a talented fiction writer as Lisa Morton and an illustrator such as Greg Chapman. Greg is also an up-and-coming horror writer so had his views and was a very diligent researcher in finding the right imagery to match the text Lisa and I developed. I hope the book has value in correcting our view of this dark period in history, and exposing what really happened.
Do you think Stephen King has redefined horror in his fictions?
I don’t think he has re-defined “horror” as a genre. He understands, indeed is steeped in horror tradition and tropes, works with them and may extend them from time to time (for instance bringing the classic King Vampire to small-town America). I think King’s work is about much, much more than horror. It is about humanity; the clash between good and evil. King is a very moral writer and will often write about the choices people will make when under pressure or left to make unrestrained choices (see for instance ‘Needful Things’). His core message is that hope is a powerful force and there may be redemption for almost anyone, even Randall Flagg. Steve writes a lot about the horror of everyday lives. His recent Bram Stoker Award winning short story, ‘Herman Wouk is Still Alive’, addresses the unrelenting pressures of poverty in America, for instance and has no supernatural overlay or traditional horror violence. As to your wider question, King certainly recreated the way horror fiction and one part of horror on the screen is perceived in America, probably in the English speaking world, in the latter quarter of the 20th century but I think it would be a stretch to say he has re-defined the entire genre.
Who are your literary influences?
My major literary influences for my writing are non-fiction writers (as that has been the bulk of my career). In my university freelance journo days I would cite Theodore H White (‘The Making of the President’ series) in particular. There was a man who got his facts right, did his research and then presented an interesting and compelling narrative. Erich von Daniken (‘Chariots of the Gods?’) has been my friend for 35 years. Controversial though his books there is no doubt he and his work have influenced my life, for which I am grateful. Later non-fiction writers I admire and respect include Martin Gilbert (a series of books on Jewish history, including the Holocaust; he was also Churchill’s biographer); the brilliant war historian, Stephen Ambrose; Shelby Foote (the premiere Civil War historian); Dee Brown (who chronicled the tragedy of the American Indian) and from there I tend to learn from individual non-fiction books. As I read a lot of history, particularly US history, you can see I respect trying to get to the root of a matter, understanding that ‘truth’ often has multiple facets, and then getting to the core of the information will interest the reader. As to writers who have influenced me more generally – those I not only enjoy but respect as writers, well the most obvious will be Stephen King. I am not going to go into depth as to why here but I will add that in addition to his writing, Steve leads a ‘good’ life – giving back to the literary community and society in general; and avoiding the traps of ‘celebrity’. There is much to be respected in that. Some of my favored writers over the years included John Irving (‘The World According to Garp’ and novels that have been become quite hauntingly beautiful in the last decade or so); the incomparable James A Michener (don’t fall for those who said he was formulaic, his research was incredible, if sometimes his characters fall short – if you haven’t read ‘The Fires of Spring’ then you haven’t fully explored ‘coming of age’ tales); Peter Straub (who doesn’t receive the appreciation outside genre literature his work fully deserves); James Clavell (‘Noble House’, etc); the brilliant political novelist Allen Drury; and genre giants Bradbury, Matheson, Poe, Clarke and Asimov. When I was young I consumed the classics – Dickens, Twain, Hugo, Stevenson and so on. Some individual books are also stand-outs to me, including Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’; Andersonville by MacKinley Kantor; and Paul Horgan’s ‘A Distant Trumpet’.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
Overall the ebook revolution is fantastic for both authors and readers but has obviously nearly killed booksellers (a very bad thing) and thrown the publishing industry into turmoil (a mixed bag, that one). As to readers it’s obviously about choice, convenience and price and they are winners on all those factors. They may be losers in terms of actually finding quality work but more about that in a moment.
As to authors it obviously gives us all more routes to market. This is particularly so for sub mid-listers and new or coming authors. But there is a big potential downside for authors – as prices plummet numerical sales may not necessarily make up – so many authors will struggle to earn the same amount, a few will make a lot more, and a lot of people will make a pittance. For the few examples that are thrown around of self-published authors making hundreds of thousands of dollars, you have hundreds of thousands of self-published authors throwing away their work for free, or effectively free. E-readers are being overloaded with free or cheap material that may never be read, or the book/story is discarded after a few paragraphs or a chapter. We all know the vast majority of self-published books are just not good enough. Let’s call a spade a spade – many are drivel, poorly written, unedited, uninteresting and would never have got past any commercial or small press publisher, but are literally thrown online by their authors. Now, that’s not to say that all self-published books are bad – that is far from true. Some fine authors are self-publishing now for commercial or artistic reasons (or just testing the waters) but they are a minority. Some up and coming authors who might not have been published otherwise can get their work out there, but I wonder how many will break through the background noise.
The biggest danger it seems to me is, as prices plummet good authors – those who write well -may find their work drowned in a sea of low quality titles; that they will find that readers will not want to pay at all, expecting everything for free – as they did with music and do with news. Now, the music industry is slowly recovering and my expectation that, as time passes, the publishing industry will shake out and new quality systems will fall into place, with readers receiving “real” ratings from a trusted source. The sort of trusted source that Amazon “five star” reviews are not. They have become laughable. Self-publish, collect a dozen friends (or have imaginary friends) and post “reviews” saying how wonderful your work is! Readers are far too smart for that. That’s why they seek books from “brand name” authors they trust, blurbs from authors they recognise, and continue to read reviews from trusted websites and newspapers/magazines, and still buy from booksellers they trust to point them in the right direction. But even after these independent review/rating systems are in place what will readers actually pay? How much money will be left for publishers? Authors? Editors? Booksellers of hard copies or downloads? Will literature and horror literature become a true art form – you know, the type where the only people making money are the government funded bodies doling out cash grants?
There are other dangers also – around copyright; file-sharing sites that jump from domain to domain in days, siphoning money from unsuspecting readers and unethical advertisers; and so on. Of course, there are other upsides – artistic freedom; the world is now our market; etc. It would be fascinating to analyze what actually happened and why in 10, 20, 50 years from now. And I know there are almost as many opinions as there are authors, editors, agents, publishers and possibly readers! So, everything I’ve said is just my take on the turmoil at this point in time.
Tell us about your involvement with the Horror Writers Association.
I have been a member since 2005 or so, and decided to pay back by volunteering shortly after I met the good folks that make up our membership at the Bram Stoker Awards™ Banquet in Toronto in 2007. I joined the Board as a Trustee in 2008 and became Chair in 2009. When Deb LeBlanc decided to retire after four hard working years as President she asked me if I was willing to serve. I don’t do things by halves so after a lot of thought I felt I could contribute moving the HWA on to bigger and even better things, accelerating the momentum that was already in place.
I am proud that in the first year of my Presidency we have achieved a lot of things – last year was the first two years of a new half-Juried system for the Bram Stoker Awards; membership has effectively doubled, including a lot of returning members; we got our Founders back involved in the organization and honored them; we’ve put the Bram Stoker Awards Banquet online; we’ve increased the number of volunteers giving back from 40-odd to 150 or so; we’ve documented our processes, formalized them and stored them in a manner in which they can be easily accessed by those who need them. In other words, we’ve become more professional at the same time as giving more back to our members. I have no doubt that through initiatives such as the Dark Whispers blog (www.horror.org/blog); our Halloween Haunts initiative in October; our presence at Book Expo America and many other literary festivals; and many other initiatives that we’re benefitting our members in greater visibility and the horror genre in general.
And there’s always so much more to do – continuing to expand the Mentor Program, delivering our third Bram Stoker Awards Weekend in Louisiana next year (http://www.stokers2013.org/), which by the way will be the first time we have hosted the World Horror Convention, building and utilizing our Scholarship Fund, more HWA anthologies and so on.
Every day I get to see how much our Board, our senior volunteers such as the Web team, the Membership Committee, the Newsletter and IM editors, the Mentor Chair, and the Bram Stoker Awards Committee and Juries are contributing, and to be frank it just thrills me. It’s great to know that people are willing to support their organization and it’s great to see as relatively new writers start to break from the pack, knowing that they are dedicated to the HWA.
More strength to our arm, to be frank!
What do you think Bram Stoker would make of the recent wave of vampire novels?
Well, Bram Stoker was an entrepreneur above all else – a theatre man who knew the attraction of a new show. So, I suspect that part of his personality would welcome almost all the takes on the vampire legend – from ‘I Am Legend’ through ‘Salem’s Lot’, the Saint-Germain cycle, ‘Interview with the Vampire’ and so on. I say ‘almost’ because I suspect ‘sparkly’ vampires would be one step too far for that Victorian gentleman!
How much do you think Maine informs Stephen King’s writing?
Maine is at the core of Steve’s works, of course. It’s not possible to overplay how important it is and that is obvious to even the casual reader. I have been to Maine seven times in the last ten years, some of those trips for extended periods and it’s quite possible even today to see some of ‘Stephen King’s Maine’, although it is changing and it is fair to say some of his core early material probably reflects a Maine that has now largely passed into history. On the other hand as an outsider, one can only vaguely estimate how accurate his representation is. He has lived there all this life, and unless one has, judging the real impact is possibly a little arrogant.
I gave a speech to his hometown historical society in 2009 on the importance of Durham and Lisbon to his canon. I was nervous – who knew who was in the audience and they knew their towns far better than I would ever do. It turned out a number of his high school classmates, two teachers and even the owner of the Kennebec Fruit Company (a character in ’11/22/63′) was there! I was overwhelmed and relieved when they told me how accurate my reflections were. These two towns, where Steve grew up and went to high school, are fundamental to much of his fiction – towns such as ‘Salem’s Lot and Castle Rock directly arise from them. Of course, Derry is Bangor (where the Kings have lived since the 1980s) and locations such as Little Tall Island are based in solid reality. But it’s more than just geography (and what a beautiful State it is) – it’s the lifestyle and demographics also. Parts of Maine are ‘hard-scrabble’ and that comes with some of the social impacts the author exposes so well (see, for instance, ‘Cujo’ or ‘Under the Dome’).
I could talk about the impact of Maine on Steve’s canon all day but let’s just say that on top of what I just mentioned I believe the master’s tremendous work ethic and output also arise from his upbringing in a State where ‘hard work’ is not a dirty term, raised by a mother who certainly worked hard to raise her boys. Maybe that is the most important result of his upbringing in Maine?
How would you defend Erich von Daniken against the accusation that he wrote pseudo-histories?
Well, I don’t know what ‘pseudo-history’ means, but I do know the von Daniken would not claim his books are ‘history’ and full of unimpeachable facts. He has always talked about ‘evidence’ and ‘speculation’ and a lot of his material is written up as questions. I guess the implication of the question is this – is his theory bunk? I’d say not, there is a lot of research both before ‘Chariots of the Gods?’ was written and, of course since, that supports a theory that this planet has been visited by extraterrestrials. In fact, it’s impossible to prove that hasn’t happened (and almost impossible to prove it has)! Knocking down any number of the things von Daniken comes up with to support his view isn’t enough to discredit the theory – one has to explain away the many specific evidences that seem to hold up and the wider issue of mythology. In the end we live in a society of free ideas – Erich’s contentions remain highly controversial and worthy of further study.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, as always, I continue my King research. There’s always new and insightful material to gather and analysis of his new works such as ‘The Wind Through the Keyhole’ (which reveals some very important information in the King universe) and ‘In the Tall Grass’. And there’s always historic research and material to be discovered. I have massive databases and all this material gets entered for future use.
My main work right now of course is for the Horror Writers Association. We are putting together a fantastic line-up of Guests and backup programming for the Bram Stoker Awards Weekend, incorporating the World Horror Convention 2013 in New Orleans; as well as the day-to-day work on improving our overall service offering.
And, as it’s mid-year, I have lots of reading on my plate as I consider works for the Bram Stoker Awards. I probably won’t take on any more major writing projects due to my illness – I couldn’t be certain of delivering and the amount of work that goes with a book over a year is probably too stressful at this stage. But there are plenty of mid-level projects I can and will contribute to.
Do you think horror fiction portrayed parallel universes before sci fi did?
Well, of course horror is a much older genre – going back to stories told around the fire by the first man on the plains of Africa. I am in no way an expert on SF so really can’t comment on when that genre started with parallel universes but it’s probably a concept more closely fitting with SF than horror. That’s not to say that we don’t have our obvious parallel universe sub-genres and quite a lot of cross-over genre fiction features parallel universes, for instance King’s Dark Tower Cycle.
Thank you Rocky for a brilliant and informative interview.
Horror Writers Association
Other books by Rocky Wood: