Happy Halloween, my loves! And what better way to spend the spookiest day of the year than with one of the masters of horror, Jonathan Maberry! I’m thrilled to welcome Jonathan to What Scares You today, and I know that you will love his answers.
I recently read Don’t Turn Out the Lights, a story anthology Jonathan edited that’s a tribute to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and I knew I had to ask him to do this Q&A. The anthology is a tribute in the very best way–the stories in the book have the same fun and twisted feel to them as the original books, and they brought me back to my childhood immediately. I highly recommend you go buy yourself a copy now.
And now, for the Q&A:
What is your favorite urban legend?
I’ve always been a fan of the Jersey Devil, a cryptid (a creature not officially known to exist but believed by many people). I grew up in Philadelphia, right across the river from New Jersey, and I spent a lot of summers as a kid camping in the Pine Barrens, which is the home of that particular monster. It’s an old legend dating back to Colonial times, and one with plenty of creepy variations. So many people have claimed to have seen it, including Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, who wrote about it in his diaries when he was in exile in America. Commodore Perry, one of our greatest naval heroes, claimed to have shot it down during an artillery exercise, but the thing got up and flew away. People report it all the time. It’s eerie, strange, inexplicable, and kind of fun. I will likely write a novel about it one of these days.
How do you deal with fear?
There’s an old Samurai adage: “If you’re afraid of ghosts, sleep in a graveyard.” I learned that while studying jujutsu, and I’ve taken it as a manifesto. So, because I had a terrible fear of heights and falling, I signed up to learn skydiving. Yes, it was terrifying for about half the way down during my first jump, but then it became amazing. I’ve since went looking inside my head for other fears and applied the same process—confronting them head on, and thereby taking agency over them. It sounds weird, but it’s actually kind of fun. It’s like leveling up in a video game.
What’s something that most people are afraid of that you are not? Why aren’t you?
I’m not afraid of the “slasher with a knife” thing, which is so popular in urban legends and movies. I’m a 6’4” tall 8th degree black belt and former bodyguard. I’ve dealt with attackers with knives, icepicks, and other weapons. That’s not on my list of things to fret about. I’m much more frightened by things like pandemics, politicians who put party over the needs of the people, and mishandled technology. Those things are beyond my skill set to combat, and therefore they unnerve me more than a little.
Do you enjoy scaring other people? Why or why not?
You’d think that because I write horror, I’d be delighted to scare the bejeezus out of people, but that’s not really it for me. I don’t write about monsters. Not really. I write about people who fight monsters, which is a heck of a lot different. My stories deal with people of all kinds —from ordinary folks to Special Ops shooters— who are confronted by something bigger and badder than them. In order to survive, and to protect the people they care about, they have to discover/learn information, get tougher, band together, and level up. It’s a celebration of what’s possible when people are pushed to their limits but also realize that they —and the ones they love—are really worth fighting for. This particularly matters to me because I grew up in an abusive household and I survived —and escaped it— by throwing myself into academics (to open doors via education that were otherwise closed to a poor kid) and by studying martial arts so that I was physically tougher than the threats I faced. That worked, and I spent the next 35 years teaching martial arts and self-defense to other people who needed that same advantage. Now I write stories about people overcoming apparently impossible odds. Sure, they might be frightened by the monsters in the book, but I want the readers to feel that it’s possible that my characters can be proxies for them, and they can see that their own survival is possible.
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?
I wrote a novel called DEAD OF NIGHT, which is ostensibly a zombie story. However, I was inspired to write it because my father-in-law, who I loved and greatly admired, was crumbling under the weight of dementia. I saw how the disease tortured him and his children, and how insidious it was because even in the midst of losing his memories and faculties, he clearly had moments of clarity that made him aware of what was happening. That was terrifying. In my novel, I added an element that the people who become zombies are still aware of what’s happening. The parasites driving the plague are in complete control of all motor functions, but the consciousness of the victim is still connected to the input from all five senses. So, as their zombie self shambles around killing and destroying what that person loves, they are forced to be helpless witnesses. It’s the only thing I ever wrote that gave me nightmares.
Interestingly, George Romero, the writer-director of the landmark Night of the Living Dead, told me that it was the only zombie novel that ever scared him. And for the same reason.
Generally, there is always some element of the totally real world that plants the seed for horror stories.
Do you have any horror movie dealbreakers?
I don’t mind extremes of horror or gore as long as there is some reason justified by the overall narrative. What turns me off is violence for purely entertainment value. Specifically, the genre known as “torture porn.” Movies like Saw, Hostel, etc. These films also have a core of misogyny that I find repellent. It seems to me that the filmmakers are grooving on the violence, rather than using it as a spur for characters to rise in some interesting way. It’s shock, not horror, and I am not the audience for it.
What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Is there a particular scene that really haunts you still?
The book that stands are my favorite horror novel is one that scares me now as much as it did when I first read it —The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It draws the reader in, and we become co-conspirators to tell a bigger story than what is expressly written. We’re invited to imagine more than is described, which is a masterful technique. Others have done well with that concept —and Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story come to mind— but Shirley Jackson is the queen.
What is your favorite monster/villain?
My favorite monster is not my favorite villain. But I’ll give you both. My favorite monster is the benandanti, which is a species of werewolf from the Livonian region of Europe, and particularly in Italy. The name means “good walker,” but they were also known as the “hounds of God” because they were families who claimed to turn into werewolves to fight evil monsters. Some of these families go back to Etruscan times. I love the idea of a monster who fights monsters, and I used the benandanti as the backstory for my series of Sam Hunter, Private Investigator short stories. Sam is a werewolf of that kind, and when he takes on a client, he protects them the way he would any member of his “pack.”
My favorite villain is “the thing” from John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?”, which was the basis for The Thing from Another World (1951), The Thing (1982), and The Thing (2011), as well as various novels, comics, and games adapted or inspired by. A cunning, shapeshifting alien whose true form we never really get to see. Able to copy any organic life, and even absorb the mind and memories to allow it to blend in. Nice fuel for paranoia, and the first two movie adaptations were superb. The 2011 suffers badly by comparison to John Carpenter’s riveting 1982 version, which hews closest to the original story, but it’s nowhere near as awful as the reviews suggest.
“I love the idea of a monster who fights monsters.”
In which post-apocalyptic scenario are you most likely to survive and thrive: 28 Days Later (zombies), The Stand (sickness kills all but a few), or The Last Policeman (asteroid hits Earth)?
If we’re talking the ultra-fast running infected of 28 Days Later (not actually zombies, but close enough), or the fast zombies in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, I’d be toast. Or, rather…lunch. I can fight, but I can’t run very fast. If it was the slower zombies from Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead, I like my odds.
However, I think I’d do best in the world of Stephen King’s The Stand. I’m very practical and have some useful skills that would allow me to fit into the (good guys’) community. And in that world, you don’t need to deal with zombies chasing you down like a Happy Meal.
JONATHAN MABERRY is a New York Times best-seller, five-time Bram Stoker Award-winner, anthology editor, comic book writer, executive producer, magazine feature writer, playwright, and writing teacher/lecturer. He is the editor of Weird Tales Magazine and president of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers. He is the recipient of the Inkpot Award, three Scribe Awards, and was named one of the Today’s Top Ten Horror Writers. His books have been sold to more than thirty countries. He writes in several genres including thriller, horror, science fiction, epic fantasy, and mystery; and he writes for adults, middle grade, and young adult.