February 2002

Kelly Shaw interview with Douglas E. Winter author of

Kelly Shaw:
What do you think about the contemporary state of the horror genre in film and literature?

Douglas E. Winter:
As THE DARK FANTASTIC makes clear, I'm not happy with the idea of a horror genre, let alone with its current state. When, in the mid-eighties, our culture and our corporations awakened to horror as a commercial force -- in fiction, film, infotainment, music, and so on -- too many creators and consumers willingly slipped their feet into the wet concrete that soon solidified to define horror.

That said, there's great new horror film and fiction with each new season. But putting aside the few conscientious people who have transcended the putative genre -- Clive, Stephen King, Peter Straub -- the best work right now is not being done in the name of horror. It's being done subversively, as mainstream fiction or experimental fiction, as thrillers or crime fiction. Or it's creeping out from between the cracks.

Your first novel, the neo-noir "Run," was a real page turner that seems perfect for a film adaptation. Are there any plans for a film version of "Run"? If so, what is the state of those plans, and how involved will you be in the project?

I was very fortunate. RUN was optioned by Hanthum Films in cooperation with 4Way Productions, with Antonia Bird attached as the likely director. I finished the first draft screenplay in October, and a revised version in February. So now we're in the realm of the fingers-crossed. As you know, in the world of films, anything can happen . . . and usually doesn't. So I'm thrilled but I keep moving on.

The erudition you display, through your editing and your criticism, is unmatched in the field of contemporary fantasique. So it was a surprise that your first novel did not explore the same dark terrain of your non-fiction. Do you have any plans, or desires, to stake your own ground in the "dark fantastic" genre? And what future writing projects can fans of Douglas Winter expect?

Thanks for the compliment. But I have to disagree with you about the terrain of RUN. It's far darker, to my mind, than most of the fiction and film associated with horror or the dark fantastic -- if only because of its realism. For those who prefer elements of the fantastic, there's certainly a minor supernatural element and there's clearly a metaphysical argument that (pardon the pun) runs throughout the text.

But in writing RUN, since it was my first novel, it was crucial for me not to write a book that went to the expected places. I wanted a novel that was uniquely mine, that a reader wouldn't compare readily with the work of Clive Barker or Stephen King, for example.

I do feel that, in my short fiction, I've staked some ground in the realm of the dark fantastic. I'm intent on pursuing the good things I find in that realm without being trapped in the tar baby of genre. So the new novel, HIDE, comes out of the world of RUN, but also goes to yet another place. If I can do one thing as a writer, whether in fiction and non-fiction, it's to cause readers to unexpect the expected.

Your incisive biography of Clive Barker, "The Dark Fantastic," is a sprawling achievement, especially in its ability to lay the foundation for Clive Barker the artist in his childhood, and in its astute thematic analysis of Clive's works (the thematic emphasis of the "imagination" as the impetus for all of Clive's work was particularly fascinating). Unfortunately, most high-minded critics continue to pigeonhole Clive as a horror writer, or a writer of gratuitous scatology. Do you think Clive will ever gain the universal respect that, as "The Dark Fantastic" palpably shows, he justly deserves? And why do you think most literature critics shun his fiction (and most fantasique fiction)?

The critical establishment, particularly in academia, abhors three things: Living writers, commercially successful writers, and writers who celebrate the imaginative. So for Clive, it's three strikes -- he's out. There are professors who are sympathetic -- more than you might imagine -- who are drawn to his work and who have written and spoken eloquently about it. But you're right, the more typical response, from scholars and critics, is to try to marginalize Clive or to closet him away with other difficult types, not only because he is a complex, protean talent but also because of the perception that those who write about the fantastic are somehow slumming.

Clive will gain a more universal critical respect, inevitably -- and hopefully THE DARK FANTASTIC will help play a role in revising those unfortunate misperceptions about Clive and others.

"The Dark Fantastic" reads like a labor of love, for Clive the artist and Clive the person, and is infectious for the reader. Could you elaborate on your relationship with Clive (when did it begin, its vicissitudes, its present state, etc.)? Did you ever request Clive's advice on how to best aesthetically assemble such a richly textured biography? And, how has Clive responded to the first authorized biography written about him?

Clearly I didn't do it for the money. I've known Clive since before THE BOOKS OF BLOOD were published, and there was a fortuitous relationship between my growth as a critic and his growth as a writer. As I've said, it seemed almost predestined that I was to become his biographer. He cooperated graciously in the book, principally with interviews and moral encouragement, but he didn't deign to advise me. I think he trusted me to write the kind of book that would honor him -- and more important, the aesthetics that we hold so dear and in common.

His response has been equally gracious. Although he hasn't adopted me -- yet.

"The Dark Fantastic" unmasks the unfortunate truth of publishers emasculating works of art (i.e. Clive's book of eroticism not being published), and it deftly analogizes the future of publishing with present day Hollywood. Have you encountered any quagmires regarding censorship with publishers? With entertainment and art overlapping more than ever (in movies and books), what do you think of the future of art in these mediums? Does art have a chance in a world of quick-fix entertainment, and MTV attention spans?

I think art is a difficult word when it comes to works produced in our place and time. Creation is far more ephemeral now and, curiously, despite expansive means of distributing words and pictures, the gatekeepers -- meaning the powers that exist between creators and the public at large -- are an increasingly small number of multinational corporations.

Art doesn't exist. It can't be labeled easily. And it can't be defined at the moment of its creation -- at least not typically. Typically a creation becomes art only with the passage of time.

The phrase "instant classic" is such an oxymoron -- and also a trap. Think, for example, of the musical talents who've released albums that were called "instant classics." Then think: Where are they now? Whatever happened to Oasis? Or Joan Osborne? THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was an "instant classic" of horror cinema. Now, for many, it's a joke.

Art is a long-term proposition. And in a short-term world, which is our world, it makes no sense to pursue art as a creator. It makes sense to pursue your creative impulses with integrity. And to think through the implications of working in commercial media.

I've not experienced much of what I would call censorship from publishers -- and there's not much true censorship out there. I think a more serious problem now is the self-censorship implicit in genre -- the willingness of so many writers and publishers to mold fiction into pre-destined forms. And clearly that is anathema to art.

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