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Robert Dunbar: Literary Patience & ‘The Pines’ 

By, Derek Clendening

The term ‘horror’ can take on different meanings for different readers, but Robert Dunbar’s work doesn’t fall into the horror category.

Not if you ask him anyway.

With his Leisure re-release of The Pines now in stores, he prefers to label himself as a writer who composes novels and short stories that have a horrific edge to them – yet set apart from stereotypical horror tropes. ‘Dark fiction’ seems to be a term that brings him a much greater sense of satisfaction. His personal heroes such as Faulkner, James and Blackwood made their mark in dark literature and he says that he’s simply following in their tradition.

When Dark Scribe Magazine caught up with Dunbar, we were curious to know more about how he defines himself as a writer. Like other established writers in the mass market and specialty press realm, he’s seen his work mangled and restored, he’s relied on specialty press sales for his bread and butter, and he’s even abandoned horror altogether only to eventually return to his true dark love. We hoped that Dunbar would share with us what makes him – his experiences and his work – so unique.

After a few minutes of light chatter over the phone, Dunbar kicks of the interview proper by informing us that he is now a full-time horror writer. He’s quick to clarify in the puzzled silence that follows that although writing has been his full time gig for some time having written for television, newspapers, and magazines, he feels that he is new to full-time horror writing. “It’s only at this stage in my life that I’m writing primarily horror novels and short stories,” he says, “that is, the stuff that I really want to write.”

Surviving on horror alone seems an unlikely proposition even for more established writers. Horror legends such as Ramsey Campbell have been known to take day jobs at Borders when the going gets rough. So what’s Dunbar’s secret? With a laugh, he explains, “Well, I haven’t been writing horror full-time for very long. The Pines and The Shore came out from Delirium with collector’s editions. And they can sell for anything from $175 to $300 and the writer gets quite a big cut from those. They also did hand-tooled, leather version of them and a hardcover with an absolutely beautiful cover selling for $50, so every bit helps.”

For newer horror authors, an important step in convincing specialty presses to take a chance on them is establishing a name with a mass market audience, but Dunbar says that he already did that in the 90's – this is not his first time around with Leisure and The Pines has seen print with the company before. “I did a mutilated version in the 90's”, he explains, “but it was a very different book and a very different Leisure. The Leisure of the old days was such a different company.”

Reflecting on the editorial and eventual restoration process of The Woods Are Dark by Richard Laymon and conscious of the war stories told by authors whose books saw significant change prior to publication, DSM was curious to know how Dunbar earned the chance to bring his original vision to light. Again, he reminds us that Leisure was a different company when The Pines was first published. Authors throughout the industry often credit Leisure for making a significant overhaul to their horror line in the late 90's and many agree that Senior Editor Don D’Auria was the man behind this change. According to Dunbar, such an overhaul has contributed to the company that Leisure has become. “I was devastated by how The Pines was first published,” he admits. “This was my first novel, and a first-time writer is such a vulnerable creature. I was so naïve…so idealistic. So stupid! When I got the galleys and looked at them and saw what’d happened to the book, I went in shock. The editor was this nice gal who told me ‘You can have up to twenty changes’ and I said ‘I have twenty changes on the first page! I can’t save this!’”

When asked why there was such the gap between reprints, Dunbar says, “Because I stopped writing horror. I thought I don’t want to do this anymore. It was heartbreaking for me to leave horror because horror is my first love and it was like we broke up!”

Dunbar was so devastated by the editorial cuts that he couldn’t cope with the pain on either an emotional or creative level. “I just stopped writing horror altogether,” he says, “but I eventually came back to it. This version of The Pines is the book that I wrote and I’m much happier with it.”

Expanding a bit on the differences between his experiences with the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Leisure, Dunbar says that he’s enjoying his relationship with the current company. “Don’s a pleasure. Couldn’t be a nicer guy, very professional…great taste. The funny thing is that he had rejected these books when I first sent them to him. He wrote me a very friendly letter wishing me luck elsewhere. And then I did place them elsewhere [Delirium].”

For Dunbar, returning to the Leisure ranks wasn’t as much about perseverance as it was about patience. “After a while, Don asked me to resubmit the books. He’d thought about it, and, by this time, the limited editions from Delirium were getting a lot of press. I’d met him by then and he’d begun seeing some reviews and interviews with me and he changed his mind.”

D’Auria’s acceptance of The Pines came with the vision to publish a restored version of the novel as a “big book” with an attractive cover. Dunbar notes that critics responded extremely well. “The people who championed the book were mainstream journalists and publications like The Philadelphia Enquirer and Atlantic City Magazine and not the places you’d expect to see a horror novel reviewed.”

When asked if his horror leans more towards the literary, he responds with an enthusiastic “absolutely!” before adding, “Leisure has published authors like Tom Piccirilli and Gary Braunbeck who also write a literary brand of horror that I think helps bring some real class to their line.”

And now that Leisure has a new and improved philosophy, Dunbar seems determined to create quality dark fiction with a strong literary flavor.

Sometimes that more subtle, quiet brand of horror is enjoyed by a different audience than the horror that leans toward the hardcore – which Dunbar has learned from the varied and unusual venues where his work has been reviewed – and readers often know which publishers to flock to in order to find the work that best suits their taste. Since Dunbar’s novels have been enjoyed by both the mass market and specialty press audiences, we were curious to know how he was able to pull off such broad appeal. He believes that the real secret is in offering familiar themes to aficionados of traditional horror while still providing powerfully-crafted writing. In The Pines, for example, he employs the archetype of the backwoods mother caring for her deranged son and the Jersey Devil legend as the backdrop for a more complicated story that appeals to more than one type of reader. “So many folkloric stories have that general setup. The legend of the Jersey Devil has this dark activity going on. The story of birth night is a bit part of the folkloric system.”

Returning to his earlier references to Faulkner and Blackwood as literary idols, Dunbar is genuinely surprised at first when asked how he thinks his modern literary horror measures up to theirs. “The people you’re mentioning are my Gods,” he says. He points out that a Hellnotes reviewer once referred to him as “the Lovechild of Faulkner and King.” “Faulkner is my hero,” he says, “and the authors you’ve mentioned are the ones whose tradition I’m following.”

For Dunbar, his only real struggle with the genre label is in referring to himself or his literary idols as simply “horror writers” – as if the term fails to completely do their work justice. He cites authors and works such as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. “These are the authors whose work I’ve steeped myself in and whose tradition I’m following,” he says, “and no one ever calls these people horror writers. No one ever calls Elizabeth Bowen that. She’s just s great writer who writes great stories, some of them ghost stories. I don’t call myself a horror writer. I write dark literature.”

Dunbar is as steadfast in his recognition of the short story as an important aspect of literary fiction. “The most interesting and most literary work comes out of the small press. Same with the short story,” he says. But in an economy where even big publishers are downsizing and scaling back output, no one is surprised to hear that the ‘zine publishing picture also looks grim right now. Dunbar expresses regret over the demise of City Slab, a high quality magazine of urban horror, which had published some of his short fiction. “There was also a magazine called The Edge,” he adds, “which was a small literary magazine with a penchant for horror and suspense. I was always thrilled to place a story with them because each story they published was brilliant. People still bring up how wonderful it was and the wonderful work that was in it.”

Dunbar maintains that the industry needs a literary renaissance in horror. “Mystery has become mainstream and fantasy is more widely accepted now and science fiction has some wonderful writers,” he says. “Horror has been continually debased, not just by publishers, but by the people who are buying books. If quality work is available, people will buy it. Thank goodness for the small press and small magazines. Where else could the real literary artists go with their work?”

Turning our eye toward the future, Dunbar says that he is nearly finished writing a novel entitled Willy, which he says is an extremely literary and sophisticated novel with a firm foot in the horror genre. “It’s a classic example of the untrustworthy narrator because the narrator is a disturbed adolescent who doesn’t entirely understand the story he’s telling,” he explains. He also mentions that his short story collection Martyrs and Monsters is due out from Dark Hart press in February. He’s also working on a collection of essays about the horror genre that he believes might also land up on Dark Hart’s publishing schedule.

But right now Dunbar is enjoying to the trip back to The Pines (Leisure released the expanded reprint this past October) and The Shore, which is due out this June (also from Leisure). “I’m always surprised and delighted by the response that The Pines has gotten across the board,” he says. “Almost every day I find a new review somewhere and it’s overwhelmingly positive.”

To learn more about Robert Dunbar, visit his official author website.

Posted on Monday, March 16, 2009 at 08:51AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | CommentsPost a Comment

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