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Interview with Mark Morris

Mark Morris iv

Today I am delighted to welcome author and editor Mark Morris to the site to chat about his latest anthology New Fears 2, the joys of short fiction, and all things horror!

18th September saw the launch of your latest anthology New Fears 2 – what kind of fearsome tales can we look forward to seeing in it?

As in the first volume, the stories extend the genre in all sorts of weird and wonderful directions. Some are very dark, some are fantastical, some are humorous, and some may not at first glance seem like horror stories at all. They’re all united, though, by the fact that they get under your skin and unsettle you. More than anything, I hope they show that the horror genre is an incredibly vibrant, varied and imaginative place right now.

The New Fears series specifically celebrates non-themed horror – what appeals to you about keeping the remit so open?  And what are your aims for future volumes?

New_Fears2I was brought up reading the Pan and Fontana books of horror stories – not to mention many other non-themed anthologies. I’ve nothing against themed anthologies – I’ve read some excellent ones – but I do find them a bit restrictive sometimes, both as a writer and a reader. Keeping the anthology non-themed both allows writers to let their imaginations roam wherever they may, and also showcases what a vast and infinitely inventive genre horror can be. I love the fact that you can read New Fears not knowing what kind of story to expect next. Life is full of surprises, and these two volumes mirror that.

As for future volumes, at the moment it’s looking as though there won’t be any, I’m afraid. Even though the first volume of New Fears received fantastic reviews, was included on various ‘Best Horror of the Year’ lists, and has been nominated for several awards, the anthology simply hasn’t sold well enough for Titan to commission any further volumes. It’s nothing to do with whether the anthology is themed or non-themed, it’s simply a sad fact that anthologies don’t sell well unless there are massive names involved (and I’m talking people whose novels sell millions of copies like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman). Unfortunately to get those kinds of names you have to be prepared to pay them vast amounts of money – but because anthologies don’t sell well, publishers are reluctant to commit themselves to big advances, added to which I personally believe that all contributors to an anthology should get the same rate of payment, and so you’re stuck in a vicious circle of little money, which means limited publicity, which means low sales, which inevitably leads to premature cancellation.

As a passionate short story reader and horror fan you’ve stated that short fiction is the life-blood of the horror genre – what are the qualities of a good short horror story for you? What horror tropes turn you off?

A good horror story for me is simply one that surprises me, or thrills me, or does something new, or compels me to read on. I try not to impose restrictions on myself, and if I were to list my favourite horror stories, it’s unlikely you’d find many points of similarity between them. By the same token, I’m not opposed to horror tropes as such, because I still think there’s plenty of scope for telling great stories involving vampires, werewolves, zombies or whatever. What I don’t like, though, are tired old clichés, or simplistic revenge stories, or stories whose endings you can see coming from the first page or two. So many of the submissions I received for New Fears were competently written, but showed no spark of creativity whatsoever. The vast majority of them were tainted by the curse of predictability, and therefore lay lifeless on the page.

You’ve said elsewhere that your first taste of horror fiction was through the short fiction found in such anthologies as the Armada, Pan, and Fontana horror and ghost story collections – who are your favourite short horror authors, and what short horror stories do you keep coming back to?

One early favourite – and to contradict what I just said, this is a simplistic revenge story, but beautifully told – was Nigel Kneale’s ‘The Pond’, the ending of which still gives me a delicious thrill whenever I read it, because it’s just so right. Another story I read as an adolescent that still resonates with me is ‘Green Fingers’ by R.C. Cook, which appeared in The 3rd Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories. ‘Which One?’ by R. Chetwynd-Hayes was another story I loved – that one appeared in The 17th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. In terms of their entire output, however, my list of favourite genre short story writers would include M.R. James, Robert Aickman, Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Nicholas Royle, Stephen Volk, Steve Rasnic Tem, Alison Moore, Rob Shearman… oh, God, I wish I hadn’t started this now, because the more I think about it, the more names spring to mind. There have been some outstanding short story collections in recent years: All the Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma, Probably Monsters by Ray Cluley, North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud, Never Trust A Rabbit by Jeremy Dyson… I’m sure there are plenty of others I’ve forgotten – but suffice to say, we are blessed with great story writers in this genre. Absolutely blessed.

How did you get started with editing short fiction? When and how did you realise it was something you wanted to do, and who were/are your editor influences?

Editing anthologies and writing stories and novels have pretty much been my joint ambitions ever since I started out in the genre – in fact, ever since I started reading books as a child. The Pans, Fontanas and Armadas started me off, which I guess mean that my earliest editor influences were Herbert Van Thal, Robert Aickman, Ron Chetwynd-Hayes, Christine Barnard, Rosemary Timperley and especially Mary Danby. There have been other landmark anthologies along the way – New Terrors and Superhorror, both edited by Ramsey Campbell, Dark Forces edited by Kirby McCauley, Prime Evil edited by Douglas Winter and Cutting Edge edited by Dennis Etchison. Then, of course, there are the numerous anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant, Stephen Jones and Ellen Datlow, which I’ve devoured over the years.

spectral+horror+2_designAs for how I personally got started, it had always been my ambition – and still is – to edit an annual, long-running, non-themed anthology series in the tradition of the Pan and Fontana books, though I guess more in the style of Charlie Grant’s Shadows series, which featured all-new stories by contemporary writers rather than a combination of new stories and classic reprints. After pitching the idea to various publishers over the years, and getting nowhere, I finally persuaded Simon Marshall-Jones at Spectral Press, who was making great inroads in the genre at that time, to say yes. I edited two volumes of The Spectral Book of Horror Stories, but by volume two it was clear that the company was in serious financial trouble and probably wouldn’t last much longer. Realising I’d have to start again, I therefore approached Titan and made the same pitch to my excellent editor Cath Trechman, who loved the idea and has remained incredibly supportive of New Fears throughout. For a long time the book was going to be called The Titan Book of Horror Stories, but quite late on the sales team at Titan decided they wanted a less specific title, and so it was renamed New Fears – a title which was suggested, as I recall, by Alison Littlewood, and which I liked because it paid homage to Ramsey Campbell’s New Terrors, which, as I’ve already said, was a big influence on me.

Somewhat optimistically, I envisaged New Fears running for ten, twelve, fifteen years – certainly I had big plans for it, and I’d already drawn up a list of writers I’d planned to approach for volume three – but sadly, it seems, the market is no longer able to sustain a long-running anthology of this nature. Having said that, if there are any enterprising publishers out there who would like to take up the reins and keep New Fears alive, then I’m very much open to offers.

What would you say is the appeal of short fiction anthologies for the reader? What anthologies would you recommend new readers try?

Short stories are great for people who don’t get a lot of time to read, and don’t want to commit to a novel. They’re also an ideal way for readers to dip into a genre, and to discover new writers. They fire the imagination in a way that novels possibly don’t, in that a good short story has to have a strong, often startling, central idea at its core. Additionally writers can afford to be bolder and more experimental in their short fiction than they can in their novel-length work, which traditionally has to be more commercial and accessible in order to sell, as a result of which the real cutting edge of a genre can often be found in its short fiction.

As for anthologies, look at my list of titles and editors above, and you can’t go far wrong.

You have a reputation for being one of the most optimistic people working in the genre – what things are currently exciting you?  How do you see horror and short fiction venues developing in the future?

Well, that’s nice of you to say so. Certainly I think the horror genre is an exciting place to be right now. Well-established writers like Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Adam Nevill and Tim Lebbon are still doing great work, and there are so many excellent newer writers coming through that it’s hard to keep up with them all. One very encouraging trend is that there are far more women writing in the genre now than there were when I started out thirty years ago. Back then you’d only get maybe one or two stories by women in each anthology, and pretty much all the significant female horror writers could be gathered together in a single book – as they were by Lisa Tuttle in Skin of the Soul. Now, though, there are dozens and dozens of female writers doing excellent work – so many, in fact, that I could fill an entire page or more naming them all. In the UK alone we’ve got Sarah Pinborough, Alison Littlewood, Alison Moore, Aliya Whiteley, Laura Mauro, Thana Niveau, Catriona Ward, Priya Sharma, Victoria Leslie, Sarah Lotz, A.K. Benedict, Nina Allan, Lynda Rucker, Laura Purcell and many more. Even so-called ‘literary’ writers like Sarah Perry, Sarah Waters and Jessie Burton have one foot planted very firmly in the genre.

As for the future of short horror fiction, who knows? Yes, professional markets are limited, and anthologies don’t sell anywhere near as many copies as they used to, which means there are far fewer of them on the shelves of Waterstones, but what is encouraging is the continuing rise of the small presses, who thanks to cheaper and more efficient technology are able to produce books of a quality to rival or even surpass those produced by mass-market publishers. There isn’t much money about for short fiction admittedly – but then there never was. No writer is ever going to make a living by writing short stories. Despite these drawbacks, though, the discerning horror reader will always find an abundance of quality short fiction – either in anthology form or via single author collections – if they know the genre, and if they look hard enough. The magazine Black Static is still going strong in the UK, and the likes of PS Publishing, Chizine, Undertow, Tartarus and others continue to keep short genre fiction very much alive.

And finally… what are you up to next?

Predator_OfficialNovelization_MMPB_cvr_USLet’s see… As well as New Fears 2, I’ve also had another book out this week – on the same day, in fact, and from the same publisher – which is the novelisation of The Predator, the latest movie in the ongoing franchise, which I co-wrote with my very good buddy, Christopher Golden. And if that wasn’t enough for one week, a couple of days earlier saw the release of my latest full-cast Doctor Who audio drama The Dispossessed from Big Finish Productions, starring Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor, and Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred as his companions Mel and Ace.

On the horizon is the release of my ‘trunk’ novel The Winter Tree, which I wrote when I was twenty-one – before Toady – and which, probably for very good reason, has never before seen the light of day. Admittedly the novel is very rough and ready, very uneven, embarrassingly naïve in parts – but Pete Kahle, who runs the US imprint Bloodshot Books, thought there was enough merit in it to bring it out as a kind of curiosity piece – as an example of the kind of thing a young and very immature writer might be expected to produce before moving on to bigger and better things.

Aside from that, I’ve just completed a new audio drama (which I’m not allowed to talk about yet), am about to start work on a new novella, which is part of a fun and exciting four-writer project for PS Publishing (but which I can’t say any more about at the moment, I’m afraid), and sticking with PS, I’ll have a big Best Of… collection out from them next year to celebrate my thirty years as a professional writer.

On top of that, I have a new novel proposal to thrash into shape, and am finally hoping 2019 will see the completion of a YA novel that Tim Lebbon and I have been working on together for about the past decade, and which we add bits to as and when we get time. If we finally finish it, and if we sell it, we’re hoping it will be the first book in an ongoing series – but I’ve a feeling we’ve some way to go yet before we get there.

Mark Morris, thank you for joining us!

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Mark Morris is a prolific author with over thirty books under his belt. His work ranges from horror fiction to movie & tv tie-ins and related non-fiction; it spans short fiction, novellas, novels, articles, reviews, audio fiction and editing.  He’s a winner of the British Fantasy Award and past nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award and has been called “one of the finest horror writers at work today” by Clive Barker.

You can visit Mark at his website: http://www.markmorrisfiction.com/

New Fears 2 is available in ebook and paperback format from all good retailers!

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