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Bentley Little: The Elusive Dark Scribe Speaks

By, Vince A. Liaguno

Bentley Little is angry – and he’s angry about a lot of things. And while the horrors on the surface of his novels are often smokescreens for the weighty social themes that lie beneath, it’s his literary gut reactions to things like conformity, large corporations, religious fanaticism, and even recycling that have given readers nearly two decades of scares with books like The Mailman , The Policy , The Association , and his newest, The Vanishing . Just don’t expect to see him taking on the healthcare system anytime soon in The Hospital – he’s leaving that to Michael Moore.

To label Little’s first novel, The Revelation , an auspicious debut would be an understatement. Published by St. Martin’s Press in 1990, The Revelation would both win a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel and make a longtime fan out of master horror scribe Stephen King. Not bad for something Little wrote as his master’s thesis while attending California State University at Fullerton, where he earned both a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and a graduate degree in English. And while some would argue that the 18 novels that have followed in as many years are impressive, perhaps it’s Little’s in-your-face support of the oft-maligned horror genre that’s even more so.

Even as bookstores dismantle their horror sections and shove his books between tomes by Lehane and Love, Little staunchly wears the label “horror writer” and is quick to point out that he does not write “suspense” or “dark fantasy” or under any other trendy marketing moniker. As much as he doesn’t shy away from taboo subjects in his novels where incest and aberrant sexuality are cushioned between healthy doses of graphic violence, Little doesn’t hold back when it comes to those who play multiple sides of the writing field.

If Little seems the idealist, it’s because he is – and can afford to be. He’s achieved a remarkably consistent level of success in a genre known for its cyclical popularity and has done so with equally remarkable scant self-promotion. With no officially sanctioned author website, no cross-country book tours, and few interviews to promote his novels, Little lives and breathes by the credo of letting the merits of his works speak for themselves. His career is a litany of contradictions to the idea that authors need to connect to their fans in ways other than through their books. With no email, no Internet access, no MySpace account, and no up-close-and-personal time at book signings, Little is about as physically disconnected from his fans as a writer can get – yet he boasts one of the most loyal fan contingents of any dark scribe working today.

In this exclusive interview, Little sits down with Dark Scribe Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Vince Liaguno for a candid chat about his latest literary fear fest The Vanishing , sticking it out in the horror trenches, and why it’s his job to make us feel uncomfortable.

Dark Scribe Magazine: Tell us about your new novel, The Vanishing.

Bentley Little: In The Vanishing , millionaires and billionaires are suddenly going on psychotic rampages, slaughtering families, friends and strangers. A Los Angeles reporter and a San Francisco social worker begin investigating this trend, and a vacationing middle-class family of four who are staying in a tourist cabin in northern California discover that strange events happening in gold rush country may hold the clue to what’s going on. I’m really bad at describing my books, and I don’t want to give anything away, but that’s the gist of it.

Dark Scribe: Many of your protagonists are everyday Joe’s - middle class family guys with insecurities and feelings of not living up to their potential. What makes these characters so appealing to write?

Bentley Little: I don’t know if I use those types of characters because they’re appealing to write about—I think it’s more that I find those sorts of people easier for readers to relate to. Most people are middle class. Most people do wish their lives were better than they are. And I think by making my main characters ordinary, average guys, it helps readers identify with their problems. It also helps ground the supernatural events that follow in a recognizable reality and perhaps gives some of my wilder scenarios a little verisimilitude.

Dark Scribe: Perhaps more than any current horror writer with the notable exception Stephen King, you’ve enjoyed a consistent success since debuting in 1990 with The Revelation. Even more remarkable is that you’ve never wavered from your support of the horror genre, never veered off into other material - a claim even King can’t make. What do you attribute your despite-the-odds success to?

Bentley Little: Creative writing instructors always tell their students: “Write what you know.” Well, what I know is horror. That’s just how my mind works. And I believe playing to my strengths has helped me turn out novels of fairly consistent quality. Horror readers are also pretty savvy. Just as they can spot those hacks who ride the wave of whatever genre happens to be hot at the moment, they can also tell authors like myself who are committed to our field. And I think readers appreciate those of us who stay in the trenches and fight the good fight even when times get tough. I know that I, personally, lost respect for writers who, when there was a downturn in the market, started shouting from the rooftops that they wrote thrillers and suspense novels rather than horror. As far as I’m concerned, those wussboys should sever all ties with the horror community if that’s the way they feel and get out of the way so real horror writers can do their work.

Dark Scribe: With so many publishers removing the ‘horror’ label from the spines of their books and major retailers dismantling their horror sections, is the reported death of horror fiction exaggerated?

Bentley Little: I think the problem is that in the wake of Stephen King’s enormous popular success, everyone and their brother jumped on the horror bandwagon. So there were a lot of crappy books, and, to some extent, readers got burned out. The fact is, horror fiction is its own art form. You know, just because you can help your kid build a soapbox derby car, doesn’t mean you have the woodworking skills to make fine furniture. And just because you have some writing ability doesn’t mean you can construct a good horror novel. But publishers demanded product, a lot of bad books were published, and it tarnished the whole industry. There’s always been a need for horror fiction, though—ghost stories have been a staple of every human society since the beginning of recorded literature—and while commercially the field may have its ups and downs, it will never go away. Hell, look at the Bible: gods, devils, ghosts, witches, giants, resurrections. That’s one big horror story. And it’s the most popular book on the planet.

Dark Scribe: What do you think of the current state of horror literature? Who are some of your favorite up-and-comers in the genre that readers should keep an eye out for?

Bentley Little: I’m not the person to ask. I live in my own little world and don’t make much effort to keep up with current trends. I just sort of read whatever strikes my fancy, and a lot of the books I buy are used, so I’m a little behind on the curve. That said, I think there are a lot of very talented new writers out there. Off the top of my head, I’d say Brian Keene and Jonathan Maberry have extremely bright futures. And I think Scott Nicholson is terrific. I read all of his books as soon as they come out. He reminds me of me in a way because he’s not hip or trendy, he’s just out there plugging away, doing his own thing, writing what he wants to write. I think he’s going to be around for a long time.

Dark Scribe: One of the more intriguing characteristics of your novels is the element of unpredictability of the characters’ fates. It’s very difficult to pick up a Bentley Little book and figure out from the opening chapters who’s going to live and who’s going to die. Is this unpredictability a conscious choice to shock the reader - or are the fates of the characters’ solely story-driven?

Bentley Little: I’m not trying to shock the reader. I’m just trying to make my stories seem as realistic as possible. In real life, good people die all the time and assholes can live long and happy lives. It’s a crapshoot. Futures depend on circumstances, and if my characters wander into harm’s way…well, they’re probably going to die.

Dark Scribe: In the information age in which we live, you’ve remarkably built a solid career based solely on the merit of your work and eschewed the publicity machine that burdens many working writers today. What’s the secret - how do you do it? What advice would you give to other struggling writers who’d like to bypass the sometimes burdensome publicity duties that accompany writing?

Bentley Little: I’m a writer. It’s my job to write books. It’s my publisher’s job to publish, distribute and advertise those books. I know a lot of authors think that publicity falls under their purview, and they take out ads for themselves and hype their work via any available media. But I’m not one of those people. My focus is on writing, and I try not to dilute it. I also think the Internet has been a huge distraction for a lot of authors. To be honest, one reason I don’t have Internet access is because, like most writers, I’m a raging egomaniac (you have to be in order to believe that your words are worthy of publication), and I know I would waste countless hours of my time writing about myself and defending myself against detractors if I was online. So I purposely avoid all that. And, yes, I am old-fashioned in my desire to be judged on my work rather than my personality. I think it means more when success is achieved by hard work rather than ass-kissing.

My advice to other writers? Don’t waste your time on self-promotion. Those hours you spend trying to get people to read your book could be better spent writing another book.

Dark Scribe: Your works often blend visceral horror imagery and graphic sex. What is it about the horror/sex connection that is so appealing to readers and writers in the horror genre?

Bentley Little: I t’s my job to make people feel uncomfortable. And the truth is, nothing makes people feel more uncomfortable than sex. Horror also deals with taboos and fears. And for some bizarre reason, in our society, sex is much more of a taboo than violence. People don’t mind seeing someone shot or blown up or zapped with a ray gun, but a lot of them panic if they see a naked body. Even though, in real life, murder is illegal and horrific and very few people come into close personal contact with it, while sex is legal, natural and something that everyone engages in. Sex is also scary. It’s where we’re at our most vulnerable. And since the advent of the AIDS crisis, the link between sex and death has become explicit, making it fertile ground for a horror writer.

Dark Scribe: The Resort was a classic example of the above. Some of those scenes raised the squirm meter to dizzying heights (laughs). Looking back on your books, is there a novel or a specific scene where you think you may have pushed the horror/sex envelope too far?

Bentley Little: No. I’ll write about anything. Because it’s all made up. It’s fiction. Just words on a page.

Dark Scribe: Fans recently saw one of your short stories, The Washingtonians, adapted for the small screen as part of Showtime’s Master of Horror series. Have you seen it, and what did you think of its translation to the screen?

Bentley Little: Yes, I did see it. It was perhaps played a little more broadly than I would have preferred, and I did not like the ending, but overall, I thought they did a pretty good job. The production values were excellent, and I thought the early scenes in the grandmother’s house, especially, were quite well done.

Dark Scribe: If you had to pick one of your novels, which one would you most like to see made into a movie? Who would you like to see cast in the main character roles? Have any of your books been optioned?

Bentley Little: I don’t really know which novel would make the best movie. I think The Store and The Association are both pretty timely and would probably strike a chord in a lot of people, but in terms of which stories or characters would translate best to screen, I couldn’t say. And I have no casting ideas whatsoever. Although books of mine have been optioned in the past and went nowhere, the only two that are currently under option are The Store , which is with Strike Entertainment, the production company responsible for the film Children of Men, and The Ignored , which is in the hands of a Dutch director.

Dark Scribe: Book titles. Do you pick your own - or are they the publisher’s creation? Is the whole "The" thing an intentional way of creating a connecting thread throughout your catalog? Or do you just really like demonstrative adjectives?

Bentley Little: When I first started writing, a lot of books had “The something” titles, since Stephen King had been so phenomenally successful with The Shining and The Stand . I purposely titled my first novel The Revelation for that very reason. I thought it would make the work more marketable. These days, though, my publisher wants to continue the trend because it supposedly gives my work a distinctive brand. I don’t really mind. Titles are very hard for me. I can write a novel more easily than I can come up with a title for it. I’ll sit there and pore through poetry books and the Bible and compilations of famous quotes…and come up with University . So titles are not my forte.

Lately, my publisher has been changing the names of my books to titles that they believe will help sell the books better. So The Letter Writer became Dispatch , The Point became The Burning and The Vanishing was given to me before I’d even finished the novel or started to think of a title.

Dark Scribe: Some have referred to you as being to the Southwest what Stephen King is to Maine. Why the Southwest, and what do you think its appeal is as a horror setting?

Bentley Little: I write about the southwest because that’s where I’m from. I was born in Arizona, I live in California and I’ve never been east of Texas. So the geography of the west is what’s familiar to me. It was also something of a calculated decision. Stephen King did have Maine, and from Lovecraft on, the majority of horror stories were set in New England. I thought it was about time that the frights came to my neck of the woods. From an artistic standpoint, the states out west are bigger, less populated and have more varied landscapes, so a lot can be done with the locations.

Dark Scribe: What’s your impression of the typical Bentley Little fan? Do you do many book signings where you get up close and personal with your readers?

Bentley Little: I’ve done a few book signings, but I generally avoid them. As for a “typical” fan, I’m not sure there is one. I’ve received fan letters from high school students and housewives, old men and young women, just a broad cross-section of people.

Dark Scribe: Heard through the grapevine that you’re a voracious reader. Do any of your reading interests fall outside of the genre? What are some of your recent recommended reads?

Bentley Little: I do read a lot. But I don’t read as much horror as I used to. I suppose it’s because I spend my days writing and thinking of horror stories myself, so when it comes time for me to read for pleasure, I want some different subject matter. I just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s last book, A Man Without A Country , which I thought was terrific. It articulates perfectly my own feelings about the state of our country and the world. We lost a giant when he died. Other recent reads are Joe Lansdale’s Sunset and Sawdust , Paradise by Larry McMurtry, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and Sherman Alexie’s book of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven . I liked them all.

Dark Scribe: Is it important for writers to stay visible between novels with short stories? Which short story markets are your favorites to contribute to?

Bentley Little: I don’t think it’s important at all. And I don’t write short stories to “stay visible” or keep my name out in front of the public—I write them because I want to, because I have an idea that lends itself to the short form and wouldn’t really fit into a novel. As for markets…you got me. I used to make a concerted effort to submit my short fiction to various magazines or anthologies, but these days when I write a short story, it’s more likely to sit on my desk until someone invites me to contribute to a project. I’m not sure why that is.

Dark Scribe: Horror movies - any favorites?

Bentley Little: Too many to mention. I’m not a completely uncritical fan of horror movies—but pretty damn close. I like almost everything. Personally, my favorite horror films are haunted house stories. They scare me. Robert Wise’s original version of The Haunting is, in my book, the scariest movie of all time. But I like The Changeling, Burnt Offerings, The Legend of Hell House, Poltergeist , almost any haunted house film you care to name. I also find the recent spate of Asian horror films quite scary. There’s something about the image of those women with black hair covering their faces that I find very creepy.

Dark Scribe: What do you think of the current remake trend in Hollywood, particularly with horror films like The Hills Have Eyes, Halloween, Prom Night, Terror Train, The Omen ? Does this speak more to a lack of original screenplays, or to a gained appreciation for works that were once dismissed as celluloid garbage, or general Hollywood greed?

Bentley Little: First of all, there’s never a reason to remake a good movie. Whoever thought of remaking The Haunting should be euthanized. And while I know all the fanboys worship Peter Jackson, his claim that he loved the original King Kong so much that he wanted to remake it is imbecilic. To some extent, I can understand remaking a film that might have had a good basic idea but was not particularly well done a la The Hills Have Eyes . But when there are so many good novels out there that have never been made into films, it seems like a complete waste of time. Why redo something that’s already been done?

Dark Scribe: In a way, you’re kind of like the horror fiction version of filmmaker Michael Moore, taking on some weighty social subjects in your books. Is the social commentary intentional or does it just evolve as the words take shape? Personally, I’m waiting for you to take on healthcare in Bentley Little’s The Hospital (laughs).

Bentley Little: Oh, it’s definitely intentional. Some are artificially constructed like The Ignored or Dispatch , where I invent a concept in order to say things that I want to say. But a lot of the novels are more like gut reactions: there’s something that pisses me off and I need to write about it. That’s how The Policy , The Association and The Store came about. Also, a lot of horror writers are very conservative. I think it’s important that an alternative liberal voice be heard. That’s me.

And if Paddy Chayefsky hadn’t written the George C. Scott movie The Hospital, I probably would be doing something along those lines. Healthcare issues are very timely and affect everyone in this country, and the crap ordinary people have to put up with in order to get decent medical care is outrageous. It’s definitely a horror story.

Dark Scribe: What hint can you give readers/fans about the next Bentley Little book?

Bentley Little: I don’t like to talk about novels while I’m writing them. Sorry.

No problem, Bentley.

Posted on Thursday, September 13, 2007 at 12:14PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

What a great interview. While it is frustrating that he does not do many interviews, book signings nor conventions, you have to admire him for doing what he wants to do: write.

I buy every one of his works when they come out without hesitation.


September 24, 2007 | Registered CommenterTroy Knutson
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