Today on the second installment of my Spine Chillin' interviews, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Gordon Clemmons, editor of the new dark speculative ezine, Shadeworks. Clemmons talks about what makes a great horror story and shares with us the most common mistakes he often encounters in submissions. He accepts only the highest quality stories and hopes to turn Shadeworks into a full print publication in the near future.
Thanks for this interview, Gordon. Tell us a bit about Shadeworks. When and how did it get started?
ShadeWorks actually started in late August of last year (2007), but some hosting problems delayed the launch for several months. We published our first issue in May of 2008.
I've been a fan of horror fiction for as long as I can remember. I think I weirded out my classmates when it came time for creative writing – mine were the only stories involving zombies and mass murderers. I own a company focused on the online world of the publishing industry, so it wasn't too big a step to start an online magazine for horror writers. It combined two of my passions, and I hope it helps emerging horror writers to showcase their work.
What type of horror fiction do you consider?
We're open to any sort of dark speculative fiction — good writing wins over sub-genre preference — but the goal is to grow into the traditional-supernatural niche. There are some great horror zines out there now like The Harrow, Chiaroscuro (ChiZine), etc. I hope ShadeWorks can be of the same calibre but specifically for the traditional-supernatural scene.
Authors can read about the submission guidelines on our submissions page.
If you could narrow down to three the elements that make a great horror story, what would those be?
Identifiable characters, pace, and trust in the reader's imagination.
If characters are caricatures, there's no sense of distress. I don't worry when cartoon characters are flattened with a big mallet, and I find no horror in cardboard characters no matter how bad their situations. Something I find myself regularly advising writers to remember is: there are certainly selfish, murderous, and vain people in the world, but they very rarely see themselves that way. More personalized, identifiable characters, and fewer cliché archetypes, please.
Pace is crucial for maintaining suspense and reader interest. When a writer gets bogged down in the details during a crucial scene, suspense goes out the window. The worst is when it becomes a play-by-play report; Susan might have straightened her shirt after stepping under the low-hanging tree limb, but I'm more interested in the savage monster looming over her. The other edge to that sword is going too fast. Goldie Locks was on to something.
Trust in the reader's imagination weaves its way through the previous two elements, but I think it deserves special attention. Description is certainly an art, and part of that art is knowing when to stop describing. Give the reader a framework to build on and cover any key points, but let the reader fill in the unimportant details. They can personalise and better identify with the material that way.
What are the most common flaws you encounter when reading submissions?
Certainly cardboard characters, poor pace, and too much description are big ones, but there are other fundamental issues I encounter regularly. Hack dialogue attribution (he said, grimacing) and telling instead of showing are big ones. One of my pet peeves is the use of as or -ing where a conjunction or sentence break should go. For example:
Filling her glass, she grinned at Jacob.
As she filled her glass, she grinned at Jacob.
Both can be better written:
She filled her glass and grinned at Jacob.
A book I often recommend to writers that speaks to these sorts of issues is Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
Do you review horror books?
Not currently. As our submission rates and readership grow, I hope to add new features like reviews. Our upcoming Halloween issue will be the first to feature artwork along with the stories.
There are so many horror sub-genres – cutting edge, dark fantasy, extreme, supernatural, traditional, psychological, etc. Do you think some have higher literary value than others? Which one do you think is more popular at the moment?
I think the literary value of any horror work is entirely dependent on the author and not the genre. I do think certain sub-genres — psychological for instance — draw a bigger pool of good writers, but my guess is that this is due to other sub-genres having stigmas. I hope this is changing as more good writers break down boundaries and blur the lines between genres. As an example, is it really that big a leap between Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and extreme horror or grindhouse, other than in expectations of sophistication and quality?
As for the second question, if what is being published and what is being submitted is any indication, I would say the cutting edge sub-genre is currently most popular.
Do you think the horror fiction market has declined, reached a plateau, or is still climbing?
I think it is in a metamorphosis. Just as borders are blurring geographically thanks to the Internet and open markets, writing styles from all over the world are mixing and combining to blur the lines between genres. I see this as a great time for horror writers because they can take advantage of these emerging borderlands to create unique works that generate a lot of talk. I think we're seeing this from writers like Patrick Rothfuss and China Mieville in the fantasy and sci-fi worlds, so it's only natural that the same will occur in the horror genres. Kelly Armstrong has shown how horror, romance, and female empowerment can blend to make a very successful series (Elena Michaels is a great antihero). Stephen King's Cell lives somewhere between horror, techno-thriller, and epic adventure tale (as do many of his works). Most of Dean Koontz's works span an array of genres. And let's not forget the young readers. Thanks to series like Harry Potter and the Twilight Saga, fantasy and horror are finding vast new audiences.
How hard is it to promote a small horror publication like Shadeworks when faced with the competition?
It can be difficult to get started – it took a few months before submissions started trickling in. Understanding search engines and how to get the word out on the Web is important, but more important is being respectful and helpful to the writers who submit their work. I've found in business that word of mouth is the best form of advertising you can get, and so far that has held true for ShadeWorks as well.
Could you tell us about the advertising and promotional opportunities Shadeworks offers authors?
Currently ShadeWorks offers horror writers a clean, ad-free publication to showcase their work. We accept only the best submissions, and my ultimate goal is for ShadeWorks to earn a solid reputation for this. I would love nothing more than for emerging writers to be able to list ShadeWorks on their cover letters to potential agents and publishers and have it mean something.
Down the road, should we grow the way I hope we will, I plan to offer a print edition and to pay professional rates to help good writers meet the membership requirements set by the Horror Writers Association.
What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
World politics aside? Bag of Bones by Stephen King. It's one of the few books I've read that had me squirming with (delightful) fright. The basement stairs scene? Forget about it. If you want a world-class education on pace in a horror story, read that book.
Which authors, in your opinion, will be remembered as the best horror writers of the 20th Century?
It's tough for me to be objective here. Richard Matheson, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Koji Suzuki, and Clive Barker would have to rank pretty high.
How does one subscribe to your magazine?
We have an RSS feed that folks can subscribe to. Any updates or new issues are announced there.
Thanks for this interview, Gordon, and best of luck with your new ezine!