John Skipp is the recipient of the 2011 Bram Stoker Award® for Superior Achievement in an Anthology for Demons: Encounters with the Devil and his Minions, Fallen Angels and the Possessed.
1. How would you describe Demons: Encounters with the Devil and his Minions, Fallen Angels and the Possessed?
JS: I’d describe it as a book with an absurdly long title… (laughs) …which also happens to contain a staggering array of tragic, terrifying, haunting, hilarious, insanely great fiction on the subject at hand, by some of the finest writers ever to tackle the tropes.
Mostly, of course, it’s about us, and all those terrible things we do which couldn’t possibly be our fault, and therefore must be the work of the Devil. Exhaustively exploring those unseen forces (and occasional, alarmingly-visual ones) that wreak mischief and mayhem upon our lives.
In that sense, it’s the flip-side of my new anthology, Psychos, which suggests that maybe we’re just crazy, and THAT’S why the horrible things happen. And I’ll tell ya: doing the two books back-to-back has been an extraordinary exercise in plumbing the depths.
So we’ve got William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist) on the one hand, and Thomas Harris (Red Dragon) on the other, making definitive statements, while guys like Neil Gaiman and Edgar Allan Poe play both sides against the middle. And that ain’t nearly the half of it.
2. Tell us about what inspired you to edit Demons: Encounters with the Devil and his Minions, Fallen Angels and the Possessed?
JS: Back in 2009, Black Dog & Leventhal approached me to assemble a massive, comprehensive zombie anthology: not just a “Greatest Hits”, but an exploration that ranged from its voodoo roots to its most modern post-Romero invocations, connecting the dots between, and excitingly evoking the Big Picture.
That book (Zombies) worked out so well, and was such a pleasure, that we followed up with Werewolves and Shapeshifters in 2010. Then Demons. Then Psychos. All of them adapting that same basic strategy: lay out the history of the genre, and what it might mean, with extraordinary examples from all up and down the scale.
I feel like we’re building a massive cumulative monument to the literature — why we love it, what it means, why it matters – one giant book and monster subset at a time. Taken as a whole, it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved with. And hope to keep building, for years to come. Reflecting all its magnificent, crazed, brain-blasting sweep and splendor.
3. What most attracts you to writing and editing horror?
JS: Love. Flat out. I love the moments of truth and revelation that horror, at its best, reveals. Like comedy — the flip-side of the coin — it pulls our soul’s pants down, and shows us our ass, engaging in the sort of honesty normally reserved for close friends. Peeling back the normosphere, and cutting to the chase.
4. What are you working on now?
JS: Right now, my focus is on making movies. I’m working with a great co-director named Andrew Kasch, and an incredible team of skilled technicians/actors/fx artists/business people who want to blow through the been-there-done-that state of modern remake-driven spooky cinema, and deliver the kinds of dangerous low-budget films that fans will love, and Hollywood will want to expensively remake shortly thereafter. (laughs)
My new book Sick Chick Flicks (Cemetery Dance) lays out three of the crazed, fem-o-centric horror films we’d like to make. (Including Rose: The Bizarro Zombie Musical, about which you may have heard.) And also discusses, at length, the road that a horror writer might need to walk if he or she wants to see their story played right on the big screen.
Also promoting Scott Bradley and Peter Giglio’s The Dark — the latest novel from my publishing imprint, Ravenous Shadows — which is not only an intimate, staggeringly badass L.A. apocalypse in its own right, but indicative of Ravenous Shadows’ agenda. Which is: books you can read in the time it takes to watch a movie. Are probably better than the movie you might have watched, instead. And which would also make excellent movies.
Infusing modern cinema with the best that modern horror fiction has to offer — and building that bridge — is my number one priority. So that’s what I’m up to.
5. What advice would you share with new horror writers? What do you think are the biggest challenges they face?
JS: The biggest challenges are, as always, a) kicking ass, and b) getting people to notice. If you accomplish the first, you’re set up for the second. If not, you’re running on hype. My advice would be to walk in kicking ass, and be prepared to follow through.
6. What are three of your favorite horror stories?
JS: Of course, you realize that question is insane. (laughs) I could give you my top 120 or so, pointing directly at the Black Dog anthologies. Outside of that? “The Autopsy” by Michael Shea? “Survivor Type” by Stephen King? “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson? I could go on all goddam day.
7. What’s your favorite Halloween memory or tradition?
JS: I like scaring the fuck out of children, then making them laugh as they grab their candy. My family’s had a long tradition of sucking ‘em in with a lavish display, freaking ‘em out with creepy sneak-attack costumery (i.e. being one of the front-yard display dummies, then coming horribly to life), and then sending ‘em off happy with dee-lishious funliness. What could be better than that?
8. Given a choice, trick? Or treat?
Why dicker when you can have both? The trick IS the treat. The candy just sweetens the deal, as kind of a compulsory afterthought.
JOHN SKIPP is one of the innovators of contemporary horror. In 1986, his punk vampire- in-the-subways novel The Light at the End (with Craig Spector) hit the New York Times bestseller list, helped launch the splatterpunk movement, and inspired the character of Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Their 1989 anthology Book of the Dead was the beginning of modern post-Romero zombie fiction. After their script for A Nightmare on Elm St. 5: The Dream Child was bastardized out of all recognition, the duo moved to Hollywood, wrote one more book (Animals), and promptly parted ways. Then Skipp disappeared from the scene.
Over a decade later, Skipp returned with a vengeance in 2002 with the solo collection Conscience, and has published 15 new titles since, including the coked-out zombie fungus epic Spore (with Cody Goodfellow) and his latest, a twisted triple-bill of fem-o-centric horror screenplays called Sick Chick Flicks.
He also edited the massive landmark anthologies Zombies, Werewolves and Shapeshifters, and Demons, with his latest, Psychos, freshly out in stores; launched his own Fungasm Press, devoted to wild fiction that defies all categories; and has embarked on a career as a film director with Rose: The Bizarro Zombie Musical, Stay At Home Dad, and The Long Last Call, all co-directed with Andrew Kasch (Thirsty, Never
Sleep Again: The Elm St. Chronicles).
On top of all that, Skipp’s been hired as editor-in-chief of Ravenous Shadows, a new e-line of lean, mean horror/suspense/mystery/crime/thrillers with no fat or filler, introducing a fresh wave of writers who he claims will scare your socks off in the time it takes to watch a feature film.
Read the Introduction from Demons: Encounters with the Devil and his Minions, Fallen Angels and the Possessed.
THE TERRIBLE THINGS THAT MAKE US DO ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS WE DO
An inspirational introduction by JOHN SKIPP
This world, as I’m sure you already know, is a scorching hot potato of temptation and sin. We may not want to catch it, but if someone chucks it at us, odds are good that we’ll automatically reach right out, even though we know it’s gonna burn like crazy.
It’s as if we were perversely programmed to do the wrong thing, even though doing the right thing is often just as easy, and makes a lot more sense.
Such is the comedy and horror of life.
And, of course, I blame the demons.
They’re everywhere: in everything we touch, taste, smell, hear, or see. They’re in our hearts. They’re in our minds. They’re in our souls.
It’s as if we can’t imagine the world without them.
How else can one explain everything from the most expansive global warfare to the most intimate acts of domestic violence, all of which are actively going on right this very second? Is “original sin” really enough to cover the full range of human atrocity? Can science, alone, come up with the answers to these seemingly intrinsic design flaws in not just our nature, but all of Nature itself?
Or do fallen angels and their odious hellspawn have a hand in all this?
WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH US, ANYWAY?
Questions, questions, questions. Many as old as the species, if not older than good ol’ Time itself.
Questions that are constantly being refined, in the hope of maybe finding better answers at last.
That’s why I happily hot-potato you the enormous book you now hold in your hands. It’s a playfully scathing treasure trove of inspired speculations both old and new: some tragic, some hysterical, some ennobling, some despairing. Many of them running the full gamut at once.
And—believe me—all of them utterly crawling with demons, of every conceivable type.
* * *
Of all the monsters that regularly prey upon mankind—in our religions and mythologies (and depending on who you talk to, in our everyday lives as well)—demons are by far the sneakiest, connivingest, most wicked and insidious of the batch.
This is because they are specifically designed to corrupt and torment us every chance they get. To trick, seduce, cajole, or force us to horribly, irrevocably lose our way. To subvert our finest impulses by honing in on all our inherent weaknesses, using every rotten time-dishonored gambit at their disposal.
As such, they’re pretty much the poster boys for evil. (Which, for the purposes of this conversation, I’ll define simply as willful malign intent.)
The Seven Deadly Sins – greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, wrath, envy, and pride – aren’t actually listed in the Bible as such; but whether you subscribe to the Good Book or not, the same principles still apply to each and every one of us, shot through and through as we are with wicked thoughts and even worse potentialities.
Given half a chance in Hell or Earth, we will doubtlessly ruin everything.
And as if our own sinful nature weren’t enough by itself, we’ve got demons to tempt us, every step of the way.
Or do we?
Which is to say: is this whole thing just our own little way of letting ourselves off the hook?
* * *
The biggest difference between demons and the rest of the go-to monsters is that just about NOBODY believes in vampires, werewolves, zombies, and such. They’re story-spinning mythos aimed at giving us the fictional willies, while attempting to make sense of their particular concerns. And in that, they do just fine.
Demons, on the other hand, remain an active part of many contemporary belief systems. Modern evangelicals, for example, still engage in spiritual warfare, even though many of them believe the war has already been won in Heaven. As such, their writings on the subject rarely appear in the “fiction” section of anybody’s bookstore; insofar as they’re concerned, those stories are true.
And good God-fearing Christians ain’t but the half of it. If you believe in any gods—by whatever name or names—the odds are fairly good that you also believe in some form of the Devil/Tempter/Trickster/Deceiver. Or, at the very least, in terrible forces—supernatural, extradimensional, karmic, or otherwise metaphysical—that actively campaign to bring us down. And that are far larger than our tiny selves.
(Far more on this in Appendix A, which concerns itself with the verrrry long history and dare-I-say evolution of our experience with the agencies of darkness.)
On the flip side of faith is the scientific notion of dysfunction: of systems gone awry, in any of the trillion ways that systems always go awry when the wiring goes wrong, or the chemicals are imbalanced, or Mommy or Daddy or Not-So-Funny Uncle Bob do monstrous things that utterly fuck somebody up for the rest of their miserable life.
There’s a lot to be said for this model, as well. That this poor damaged soul would have been just fine if x and y didn’t happen: that if the chemical x and the behavioral y hadn’t come together in just the wrong way, they could have been a respectable pillar of society, instead of the blood-drinking baby-raping scalp-taking sociopath they actually turned out to be.
But there’s a lot of widely charted wiggle room in between, with more than enough evidence on either side to honestly make me wonder which came first: the synapse or the sin?
To which my answer is always:
Why dicker, when you can have both?
The war between science and religion has always struck me as one of the silliest debates in the long jabbering history of the human race. Science tries to explain how things happen. Religion tries to explain why things happen. They both seem like reasonable inquiries to me, albeit with wildly differing criterion, and varying burdens of proof versus faith.
Which brings us to art: my personal favorite, because it allows us to bridge these seemingly polar opposites in ways that both expand and dissolve the rigid boundaries between them.
Exploring what it all means, and how it plays out, from the micro to the macro, in distinctly human terms.
That’s where the artists and storytellers come in, as they have for long as we’ve been around. Forever trying to puzzle it out. Asking questions. Supposing what-ifs. Laying out the possibilities, in poignantly recognizable ways that make us wonder how we might respond if faced with such evil.
And reflect on how we already have.
Or hope to, next time around.
(Substantially more on this in Appendix B, which traces the equally long and colorful history of demons in popular culture.)
So here, I guess, is the point, if I have one:
The horrible truth is, WE REALLY DON’T KNOW which came first in this chicken-or-the-egg scenario of evil. We can debate it till the mad cows come home, and doubtlessly will.
But I’m sorry. We just really don’t know.
We want to, and we’re trying, in every single way we can, from the secular to the sacred to everything in between. And I give us lots of credit for trying so hard. Using every kind of evidence. Seeking every sort of pattern. Both trusting and fearing our intuitions, because when push comes to shove, we’re not 100% about them, either.
Which is, frankly, probably all for the best.
So just to be clear: this book is not a theological text. Nor is it an atheistic refutation of faith. Instead of swinging one way or the other, I have cheerfully opted for both, and more: letting some of the finest writers I’ve ever read weave their own inspired assessments of this tangled web we’re in.
From horror to romance to far-flung fantasia to even-further-flung Bizarro frontiers, every strata of literature from highbrow to low has explored this terrain, and will continue to do so.
Because these are the central issues of our lives.
And that’s what great storytelling is all about.
Whoever you are, however you see things—and whatever it is that you do or don’t believe—it is my hope that you will find a staggering abundance of profound, provocative, exciting, enlightening, horrific, hilarious, charming and alarming stories herein, many of which will hit you right where you live.
As always, your mind is your own, whether by existential autonomy or God-given free will.
Or is it?
(Insert sinister laughter and rising organ music here.)
And with that, I toss this astonishing hot potato directly into your lap. Catch it or drop it or pass it along, as is your wont.
That’s entirely up to you. Your God, or gods.
And your personal demons.