Permanent Midnight: Say Hello to Horror's Undisputed Queen and Her New Lovecraftian Monsters

Genre fiction editor Ellen Datlow discusses her latest horror anthology, "Lovecraft's Monsters."

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Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.

Give me a choice between a novel and a short story, and more often than not, I’ll opt for the latter. In short fiction anthologies, especially with horror-themed collections, there’s no limit to what kinds of narrative insanity you’ll come across over 300-400 pages. And if one story bores you or ultimately disappoints, it’s right onto the next one.

Personally, I can’t get enough of them—it’s a rough estimate, but I’d say that nearly half of my at-home library is comprised of horror fiction anthologies. The other half? Novels with wonderfully garish covers that prospective female mates are better off not seeing, hence why they're typically stacked upside down. Like this. And this. Also, this. And especially this.

Because I tend to over-analyze everything, I’ve thought a considerable amount about why that’s the case. The answer: It’s all the late, great Rod Serling’s fault. Or, rather, it’s all to his credit. One of the perks of being born on New Year’s Day is that the television gods give me the best present every year: the annual Twilight Zone marathon, currently a SyFy tradition but originally, when I was a little kid, WPIX New York’s 48-hour small-screen blessing. I’d spend way too much time every born day re-watching my favorite Zone episodes, a practice that didn’t lessen even when my parents awesomely bought me the entire 162-episode DVD box set for Christmas when I was a teenager. The anthology format was ideal, offering new weird and disorienting tales every episode and conditioning me to appreciate lean, mean storytelling.

Ditto for movies. Omnibus horror films—better known as anthology films—gradually became a personal favorite sub-genre. There’s nothing better than Stephen King and George A. Romero’s cinematic ode to E.C. Comics, Creepshow (1982), except, perhaps, the Amicus Productions-released, British anthology movies of the ‘70s, gems like Tales from the Crypt (1972), The Vault of Horror (1973), and Asylum (1972). In 90-minute to two-hour spans, you can watch three, four, or even five short films, all threaded together by some kind of framing device and touching upon different horror tropes. In Tales from the Crypt, for instance, there’s a homicidal Santa Claus, a zombie, a group of blind men turning homicidal, and a flip on W.W. Jacobs’ classic short story “The Monkey’s Paw.” That's four unique horror experiences for the price of one.

Now consider how that translates into fiction anthology books—the numbers jump to anywhere between 10 to 20 horror experiences for the price of one. In regards to my library’s roughly estimated 50% anthology makeup, at least half of that comes from the tireless, 30-years-strong genre fiction editor Ellen Datlow. Ask any of your favorite horror/sci-fi/dark fantasy novelists and writers—she’s the best at what she does, and, in turn, is the reigning and undisputed champion of on-the-page genre product.

Dating back to the early ‘80s, Datlow has been the preeminent surveyor of written horror, combing through fiction magazines and other anthologies to collect the scariest, coolest, and most altogether badass stories into her annual Year’s Best releases, which, today, have evolved into her Best Horror of the Year series. And that’s just one yearly responsibility. Datlow edits multiple books per year, sometimes revolving around one specific theme and other times more general in their approaches.

Her latest collection is Lovecraft’s Monsters (now available from Tachyon Publications), a follow-up to her 2009 book Lovecraft Unbound. Both, of course, are homages to genre fiction icon H.P. Lovecraft. For Lovecraft’s Monsters, Datlow collected reprints of older Lovecraftian stories, as well as one original tale, from writers like Neil Gaiman, Laird Barron, Elizabeth Bear and Joe R. Lansdale that modernize the legendary author’s otherworldly creatures, like Cthulhu, the Shoggoths, the Elder Things and Yog-Sothoth. (Trust, they’re scarier than those tongue-twisting names suggest.) Adding to the book's excellence, illustratorJohn Coulthart provided gorgeous new black-and-white artwork for each story.

Lovecraft’s Monsters kicks off a seriously busy year for Datlow. Next month, the sixth volume of her Best Horror of the Year series will hit bookstores, before she populates shelves three more times. In the summer, she'll have the non-themed collection Fearful Symmetries (out in July and funded through Kickstarter) and the carnival-angled fiction omnibus Nightmare Carnival(September), available; then, in the fall, comes the movie-centric The Cutting Room (October), a compendium of reprinted stories all having to do with the film industry’s dark side.

Here, graciously finding time in her nonstop schedule, Datlow discusses the philosophy behind Lovecraft’s Monsters, its unintended connections to True Detective, common writer mistakes and navigating through genre trends.

Thanks to the recent success of True Detective, H.P. Lovecraft and “weird,” cosmic horror fiction were big topics of conversation earlier this year. Thus, the timing of Lovecraft’s Monsters is ideal. For you, though, what made now seem like the right time to re-explore Lovecraft again in this new Monsters anthology?
I edited Lovecraft Unbound several years ago. It had mostly new stories, with four reprints in it. It sold, and is still selling, well for the publisher, Dark Horse. I was approached back in early 2012 by Victoria Blake, who at the time, was the publisher at Underland Press. It was her idea for me to edit an all-original anthology of Lovecraftian monsters, to be illustrated.

But within a month of discussions Victoria realized that she couldn’t afford to publish such a book, so the idea died—until Jacob Weisman and I brainstormed about my next all-reprint anthology for Tachyon Publications. I mentioned the dead idea of Lovecraft’s Monsters and he was interested.

The timing of publication is a happy coincidence. We didn’t even know True Detective was in the works when I put out my call for suggestions.

Did you watch True Detective?
Unfortunately not. I’m waiting for it to appear in my Netflix DVD queue, and trying desperately to avoid reading/hearing about spoilers.

You utilized crowd-sourcing, via Kickstarter, for your other new anthology, Fearful Symmetries, which taps into the self-publishing route a lot of writers are taking nowadays. Would you recommend self-publishing as a route for new, unknown fiction authors to use in order to have their work read?
Not in most instances. Unless you have a readership to begin with or have the means to galvanize an already existing fan base you might as well just be tossing your pages into the ocean. You can put your work out there but how will you get anyone to read it? Not to mention, pay for it?

I think most new writers are better off going with traditional publishers who will actually, at a minimum, edit your work, package it well, and market it for you. Do you really want to send out review copies yourself and pay for the postage? Most reviewers still require print copies of books. How are you, as a new writer going to get your work in front of reviewers or readers?

There are always exceptions. Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey have been successful in their self-publishing ventures. But notice that Hocking would prefer to write and hand over the editing, promotion, and selling to a traditional publisher. If you have the energy and ability to go out and hawk your books from the back of a truck, or the time and patience to push your work online 24/7, go for it. New writers need to be wary of dodgy “traditional” publishers as well.

When seeking out new, fresh voices for your anthologies, what distinguishing qualities do you look for in an author’s work?
I don’t generally have open calls for my original anthologies. But as I’ve been reading, or at least skimming, science fiction/fantasy/horror short stories for over 26 years while editing the horror half of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and then The Best Horror of the Year, I start asking writers whose work has impressed me from that reading. I’m drawn in by character and story. Great writing is a bonus.

As an editor, are there any common, reoccurring mishaps/flaws that you repeatedly come across?
I find that writers often develop a “tic” in a story: the overuse of a word or phrase. Some examples: the words “that,” “just,” “all.” I usually don’t notice these until I’ve read a story more than once, often during the final line edit, something I do after I’ve bought all the stories as preparation for handing in the book manuscript in to my publisher. Computers are great for finding overused words. If I happen to notice “that,” I can do a search/find and tell the writer. Hey, I found 100 “that’s” in your 8,000 word story. Get rid of the unnecessary ones.

But the “tics” are a very minor problem. I hate being bored when I read a story. Even a well-trod theme can be made fresh by a different perspective or fresh writing.

Is it difficult to find new writers who naturally have their own voices and aren't just mimicking their favorite authors' styles? I’d imagine this is something you can easily spot, since you’ve edited anthologies themed around genre fiction's two most influential authors, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
I’ve edited three: one inspired by Poe and two by Lovecraft. But I’ve read many anthologies overly influenced by those two iconic authors. There are many pastiche anthologies filled with writers new and experienced slavishly adhering to Lovecraft’s style, something that’s usually a terrible idea. But it’s not at all difficult to find new writers with fresh voices. At least, I have no difficulty.

How do you decide what to focus on for your next anthology? Is it a matter of seeing what the current genre trends are and trying to provide an alternative to that? Or is it less about strategy and more of an instinctual thing dictated by story quality?
There are several ways that my anthologies are born. I may have an idea and try to sell it. I’ve been wanting to edit a doll horror anthology since 2006 and it finally sold in 2012. I’m now working on the final line edits and it will be out from Tor in 2015 [titled The Doll Collection]. Other ideas are sold quicker or not at all. I have a file of “dead anthologies”—or, themed anthologies that I tried to sell, with or without collaborators, that just didn’t go anywhere. Sometimes I’m approached by a publisher with an idea, I’ll like the idea, ask a few of my favorite writers if they’re interested in the theme and write up a proposal. 

I couldn’t sell any new anthologies two years ago and then a year ago I sold four, which unfortunately means that they’ve all been due around the same time.

The only “counter trend” anthologies I’ve edited are The Dark, which was made of ghost stories that I hope brought unease to the reader. This was in reaction to several ghost stories I’d recently read that were extremely moving but not at all creepy. The other was Lovecraft Unbound, which deliberately avoided pastiches.

Stories don’t just appear out of nowhere unless you’re editing a regular publication like a magazine or webzine. The stories I publish in my anthologies are commissioned specifically for the anthology on which I’m working. Which means those stories might not ever exist unless I, or another editor working on a different anthology, ask for them.

With the high number of horror-themed TV shows currently on the air, the genre is incredibly popular within the mainstream. But in my opinion, as a longtime passionate horror fan, most of the genre’s best new material can be found on the page, not on television or on the big screen. Do you feel that literary horror receives enough attention in that regard?
Reading is popular on a much smaller scale since the invention of film and television. Those two media, and maybe games, are the popular modes of entertainment now.

People aren’t going to stop reading though, and e-readers and audio books have been a boon to literature of all types. The popular horror-themed TV shows seem way more ambitious than most of the horror movies today—although I loved Stoker and Byzantium. We can hope that those shows encourage more reading of horror but I sure wouldn’t count on it. The huge success of Star Wars and the Star Trek movies, and the Star Trek TV shows and spinoffs, didn’t bring readers to literary science fiction.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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