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Singing the Horror Blues with Del Howison

By, Lisa Morton

Clark Ashton Smith. Gahan Wilson. Clive Barker. And to that list of horror's hyphenate Renaissance men, add one more name:

Del Howison.

Take a look at what Del's accomplished so far just this year, and you'll get some idea of his range of talents: His second anthology, Dark Delicacies: Fear (edited with Jeff Gelb) was nominated for both the Stoker Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, and has just been reprinted by Ace in mass market paperback; he and Gelb signed the deal for Dark Delicacies 3, and are currently making their way through submissions for the book; his first nonfiction book, Book of Lists: Horror (edited with Amy Wallace and Scott Bradley) has just been published by HarperCollins; his short story "The Lost Herd" (which originally appeared in Strange Bedfellows: Hot Blood XII) was re-titled "The Sacrifice" and became the premiere episode of the NBC horror anthology series Fear Itself; he'll have new short fiction on display in the upcoming anthology Traps; his first book review (on Joe Lansdale's Leather Maiden) just appeared in the Los Angeles Times and was syndicated to other papers around the country; he signed a deal with IDW Publishing to co-edit (with Steve Niles) a comic series called - surprisingly enough! – Dark Delicacies; and he reprised his role as "Renfield" in the just-released low-budget shocker Blood Scarab. Oh, and somehow Del and his wife Sue find time to manage the store that started it all, Burbank, California's Dark Delicacies, the nation's only all-horror book and gift store.

On a rare quiet day inside Dark Delicacies, Del and I sat down and chatted about his life, work, and how one man can accomplish so much.

Dark Scribe Magazine: You grew up in Detroit, right?

Del Howison: Right.

Dark Scribe: Did that have anything to do with you writing horror later on?

Del Howison: I don't know. Son of a Detroit cop, and I was 14 at the time my dad was the sergeant in command that raided the Blind Pig (after-hours gambling joint) that started the riots in Detroit.

Dark Scribe: Wow. Did dad bring this stuff home with him?

Del Howison: Not usually, but when the riots happened the city was under curfew and Time magazine and a couple of other places were lovely enough to print our address.

Dark Scribe: Your home address?!

Del Howison: Our home address. And I remember distinctly - now I was 14, so my sister was 4 – and my dad pulled up with his crew. So the city's under curfew - there's nobody on the streets - and they had three black station wagons filled with cops in riot gear with the helmets and the guns and the whole thing. And my dad was getting us out of the house to my grandmother's house, which was in the suburbs, and I remember turning around as we were running out of the house (it had to be about midnight), and my dad is coming out of the house with the riot helmet on and the weapon, and a teddy bear and my sister. And that image will never leave my head.

Dark Scribe: Did you watch a lot of horror movies as a kid?

Del Howison: Probably started with the midnight stuff on the television. Just the other day I say that they've released on DVD the first horror film I ever saw in the theater as a kid. It was the first film I watched with my hands over my eyes, peeking between the fingers, and it was The Curse of the Faceless Man.

Dark Scribe: Let's talk about the anthologies. How do you go about editing something like that, especially since they've become the most important new anthology series in years?

Del Howison: Jeff and I go through three layers. First, you have your names; you have to secure your names. That's the money, that's the reason the book gets printed. Then you have the majority, the mid-listers. Then one of the things we always try to do is fill up one or two spots with someone who either hasn't been published, or isn't known. I'm trying very hard this year to get a brand new story from Ardath Mayhar.

Dark Scribe: Oh my God! I had no idea Ardath Mayhar was even still alive.

Del Howison: Yes, she is. That's one of those things that's personally a "gotcha" for me that will do absolutely nothing in selling the book, but I just delight in that kind of thing.

Dark Scribe: It is interesting that you always have one or two stories by first-timers, and yet the anthologies are by invite only.

Del Howison: I'm very proud of the fact and fortunate that I belong to a writer's group of talented new writers who write horror, and I try to draw from that group because I'm familiar with them. But now, because we're in our third book, we're also finding new writers through recommendations.

Dark Scribe: Can you talk a little about how the books started?

Del Howison: We tried for years to get a deal for Dark Delicacies and couldn't do it - I always figured it would come through small press, I had no idea it would be a mainstream publisher. We'd actually gotten feedback from small press publishers that said, "If we wanted to do that, we'd just do that ourselves and line up those writers." They actually said that to me! And I thought, Okay, Well, go ahead! And y'know what? The first book came out in 2005, and we'd been working on it for years before that, and I'd been trying to get an anthology published for years before that, so let's say 2000. Since 2000, they haven't done it, and it's either because the small press publishers don't want to do it, or it's just not quite as easy as they thought it was.

Dark Scribe: And your books have been very successful financially, so it really doesn't make sense.

Del Howison: And now we're starting to pull stories from these for the comic book series that Steve Niles and I are doing called Dark Delicacies. The first issue contains an adaptation of the Lansdale story from the second book, and an F. Paul Wilson from the first book. So we are using the books for source material, although all of the stories won't come from the books. Steve is also thinking it's a great way to revisit a lost classic every now and then. I'm really looking forward to it - we have a year's trial on the comic book series. Four issues, and then they're going to put out a hardback compilation with an extra story, and then a year after that they're putting out the trade paperback edition. They'll see how it works financially, and then maybe there'll be a year two.

Dark Scribe: Has editing been easier or harder than you thought it would be?

Del Howison: Dennis Etchison said one time that when you start editing an anthology, you get in touch with all these great people who are going to give you stories, and you have this time-frame - you have between now and X to turn this book in - and when you reach the halfway point, you go, "Oh my God, I'm never going to end up with enough good stories to fill this thing!" And by the time you get to the end, you go, "Oh my God, who do I have to cut out so I have enough room for all the good stories?!" And it's happened that way all along.

Dark Scribe: So you're doing your first anthology, and you're editing stories by Ray Bradbury and Clive Barker. Was that fun or weird?

Del Howison: Intimidating! Luckily, that's one of the real beautiful things of having a partner who had edited over fifteen anthologies already. Having Jeff Gelb as a partner was an extremely big help. The other nice thing is that the people like Ray Bradbury and Clive Barker are not un-editable, but the more you go in that direction the less editing you need because they're old pros. You actually do more work on a newbie not because you can, but because they need it. When you have somebody turn in a story who's been writing horror stories for forty years, they've pretty well got it down.

Dark Scribe: One of the fabulous things about the Dark Delicacies books is that you've got such a great mix of writers from different backgrounds - different ages, different levels of experience, and especially of male and female. You have a much higher ratio of women writers than almost any other anthologies that are being done.

Del Howison: And I'd like to say they're easy to find, but they really aren't.

Dark Scribe: So you consciously search them out?

Del Howison: Yes, just like I consciously search out newbies. I would love it to be a fifty-fifty mix of male and female, but I don't foresee that ever happening, just because the strong female writers aren't getting enough of the spotlight for me to be able to find them. I wish I got the number of submissions from females that I get from males, because that would make it a lot easier.

Dark Scribe: Your afterword to the first Dark Delicacies, called "Before You Leave", is very interesting. You said. "Horror has always been the blues of literature." Now to me, the blues are kind of depressing.

Del Howison: But see, that's really not the blues. The blues to me is very much an uplifting music, a party music. What I was referencing there is that blues is the root music. All American music came from blues and jazz - rock and roll, everything. And horror is the root of storytelling, from caveman pictures to Beowulf to whatever. And what I'm saying is that, like the blues, the root becomes under-appreciated, or thought of as something easy to write because it hasn't experienced the evolution to “literature". It's hard or harder to write a good genre book because of all the clichés that have come before you that you have to avoid.

Dark Scribe: If you could influence the direction of modern horror in any way, what would that be?

Del Howison: Lead it as far away as I could from [the] slasher. I'd take it by the hand and walk in the opposite direction, much more towards psychological and suspenseful. Richard Matheson said he never wrote horror, he wrote terror. Terror and suspense, as opposed to someone coming in and cutting off somebody's head. It's not scary any more. We did that. The splatterpunks came along with a wonderful punk sensibility, and did it, and did it again, and did it a third time, and drove it into the ground. We should be done with that. It's just too easy, that's why you get a lot of it. It's too easy to write splatter, it's too easy to film splatter. Horror should be repulsive, but at the same time it should have the thrill of a roller-coaster ride that scares the crap out of you, but you also want to get right back on again because it was fun. I think we're missing that in this decade, where we've gone straight to splatter in both our writing and our movies. People who aren't involved in horror think then that's the definition of horror, and that only hurts us. There's room for that, but it hurts us if that's all that's produced.

Dark Scribe: Since you're also a writer (there aren't many of you editor/writers left!), when you write a piece of fiction, do you find that your editorial skills come into play?

Del Howison: Yeah. Unfortunately! It's not a good thing, because it's almost like self-censorship. I would rather put everything out there and let the editor I'm writing for say, "Oh, we can't say that", then me say it in my head before I even put it out there and not giving it a chance to see the light of day. But I'm a little sloppier, too, because I'm tired of doing all the editing!

Dark Scribe: When you write fiction, do you have any sort of little rituals or good luck charms?

Del Howison: I don't have any rituals or good luck charms, but I have an old saying: What's your favorite thing you've written? The thing I've just finished. What's your least favorite piece? The thing I'm working on now. I find writing a complete drudgery, and I love that drudgery, but it's not easy for me and I'm not a fast writer. I do have tricks to help myself out, like when I stop for the night, I usually quit a couple of sentences into a paragraph. That way the pump is already primed when I come back to it.

Dark Scribe: With all the people you know and have worked with in the genre, is there anyone left you'd really love to meet or work with?

Del Howison: Sure. I'd still love to meet and work with King. I have met and conducted interviews with Peter Straub, and I'd love to have him onboard for a story in the anthology. At least I've spent time with him and had him in for signings and so forth. King is the great elusive for me.

Dark Scribe: I have friends who try to argue that every new horror writer who has come out in the last twenty years has been toiling in the shadow of Stephen King. Do you think there's anything to that?

Del Howison: No. I think Stephen King did a wonderful thing when he took horror out of the spider-webbed dusty castles and put it in our living rooms and our kitchens. But didn't Ira Levin and Robert Bloch put it in our kitchens before him? He just made it much more accessible to the masses. He was good at it - and he's still good at it - but we're all standing on the shoulders of someone else. My influences were more like Robert McCammon's A Boy's Life and Tryon's Harvest Home and Lady.

Dark Scribe: All this different stuff you do - prose writing and nonfiction and editing and reviewing and retailing and acting - if you had to pick only one to keep doing, which would it be?

Del Howison: Well, it would be my store because I get to do that with my wife. But if you're talking about an individual endeavor, I don't think I could stop writing. I really don't. Hey, if I never got another acting job, I could live with that. I did some, I had fun, that was great. But I don't think I could ever sit down at a computer and not have that desire to write, or I suddenly see a movie that makes me want to grab an ink pen, or I read a book and suddenly think, I have to start writing again. That is my magnificent obsession.

Photos Courtesy of Rick Pickman

Posted on Friday, October 10, 2008 at 09:41AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in , , | CommentsPost a Comment

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