Thursday, February 13, 2020

Interview: Jess Nevins, author of Horror Fiction in the 20th Century

I first heard about Jess Nevins from  his Big Idea post at Scalzi's Whatever.   If you are interested in the modern history of horror and how the genre has evolved over the decades, if you're interested in exploring horror from all corners of the world, and discovering new-to-you horror authors, his newest non-fiction reference book,  Horror Fiction in the 20th Century: Exploring Literature's Most Chilling Genre is the book for you.

The more I researched Nevins, the more fascinated I became.  This is a guy who has published 19 non-fiction reference books on genre since 2003, including The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, The Fables Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of Pulp Adventures, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, and Horror Needs No Passport, among many others.  The knowledge this guy must have!  The memory! The passion for genre fiction! Also, how in the world does he find the time?

Of course I had to ask him if I could interview him!

I am thrilled to say that yes,  I did get to interview him.  And yes, you will be just as fascinated as I am with his work and his abilities.   Jess was kind enough to talk with me about his adventures with Interlibrary Loan, doing his own foreign language translations, scope creep,  surprising things (and sad things) he found while researching Horror Fiction in the 20th Century, his bucket list of dream projects,  the secret behind how he publishes so many books, his newest project, and more!

If that isn't enough, Jess Nevins' short fiction has appeared in Shimmer Magazine, Skelos, and elsewhere, he has also published three novels.  You can find him online at JessNevins.com, and on twitter at @jessnevins .

Let's get to the interview!


 Nerds of a Feather: Congratulations on Horror Fiction in the 20th Century: Exploring Literature's Most Chilling Genre! This type of reference book has been sorely needed for a long time. Up until now, your work mostly focused on superheroes, long running comic series, and pulp fiction. What made you interested in doing a Horror reference book?


Jess Nevins: Thanks very much! What sparked the idea for the book was my doing research on various topics in encyclopedias of horror fiction and horror authors, and being dissatisfied with what I kept finding. I’ve been reading horror fiction all my life, but the more I learned about the genre the more stories and authors I discovered weren’t covered in the standard reference books on horror fiction. And I kept finding that my own critical judgments were at odds with a lot of the critical judgments in those books.

It finally occurred to me that perhaps I could write a book about horror fiction—as Benjamin Disraeli wrote, when I want to read a book, I write it. So I started doing research for the book, and comparing what I wanted to research and what I wanted the book to have to what was in the standard reference works, and I realized what the book could be  and should be. That’s how I got interested in doing this particular horror reference book: I wanted a horror book that included all the stuff the standard horror reference books left out.


NOAF: What was your research process like?

JN: First I went through the standard reference books and made a list of authors they covered who I felt I should include in my book. Then I started reading anthologies and collections of horror stories by women, books like Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s What Did Miss Darrington See? and Lynette Carpenter and Wendy Kolmar’s Ghost Stories by British and American Women—women have traditionally been slighted or ignored or overlooked in discussions of horror authors, something that is regrettably true about the standard horror reference books as well. I knew I wanted to include a lot of female authors, whose work was just as good (albeit often in different ways) as their male counterparts, so I found as many books and research articles on women horror writers.

Then I read books of criticism about the authors on my list, and took note of the authors those critics mentioned, who were occasionally not in the standard reference works. I spent a lot of time in college and university libraries and special collections—the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center has an excellent collection of horror, and I passed many an hour in the Center’s Reading Room. I spent a lot of time reading articles and electronic books and dissertations online in various research databases and places like Google Scholar and the Core (core.ac.uk ). And I spent a long time going through the bibliographies and footnotes of everything I read and consulting those books and articles which the authors I was reading had used in their research.


NOAF: This reference features incredible coverage of international horror literature. How did you go about finding these horror stories and learning about these authors?

JN: Nearly all of the standard reference books on horror include at least one or two authors who aren’t American or from the United Kingdom—what I call the “Anglophone countries.” Almost as soon as I began writing the book it occurred to me that, as with female horror authors, there must be more horror authors from outside the Anglophone countries than were included in the standard reference books. So I began using all of the databases I had access to via work (I’m a college librarian) to find books on non-Anglophone horror fiction and authors. That gave me a basic list to begin researching. Then I began reading books of criticism and history about regional literatures and the popular literature of various regions and countries. Doing that I found books like O.R. Dathorne’s The Black Mind: A History of African Literature and Albert Gérard’s European Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa and Muireann Maguire’s Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature, which pointed the way toward authors and stories/novels I didn’t know about and books of history and criticism which might be useful.

I spent a lot of time in college and university libraries and special collections, as I said, and I requested, through my library’s Interlibrary Loan service, an enormous number of books, most collections and anthologies of non-Anglophone authors’ work. Then I began to translate particular stories—which was the most labor-intensive part of the research process. I can get by in French and German, but when it comes to languages like Finnish and Hungarian and Croatian, well, it was word by word, dictionary in hand. Which is not the ideal way to translate anything, but was the best I could manage, since I couldn’t afford to pay for a translator.


NOAF: How has the horror genre changed over the last 100 years?  What types of patterns (if any) did you notice the most?

JN: As you might expect, the horror genre has become much more welcoming to different voices over the past century—different voices, and different characters. The all-white-cis-hetero-male parade of authors and characters is over, thank heavens. With this change in voices and characters has come a similar change in the types of stories told; horror fiction by and about characters who aren’t white-cis-hetero males often (not always, but often) addresses different concerns and anxieties and beliefs than what is found in horror fiction by white-cis-hetero males.

Horror fiction is generally more explicit about what’s going on in the story now, less elliptical and more detailed, whether it’s the violence, the threatening human or monster, the emotions, or even sex. A lot of the old(er) stories would allude to violence and sex and what the monster looked like; most horror fiction now is direct about these things.

In general, changes in horror fiction reflect the changes in society of the author(s) of a horror story. The decline of religion in the West is reflected in the near-disappearance of religious horror in Western horror fiction. The end of colonialist empires in Africa meant that African horror writers could write horror fiction about their former colonizers and about the horrors of colonialism; a generation later, African horror writers began writing horror stories about anything and everything.

Metaphorically, horror fiction a century ago was classical music (including the experimental branch of classical music); by the end of the century, horror fiction could be anything from John Cage’s “4’33”” to Pusha T’s “What Would Meek Do” to Vampire Weekend’s “Harmony Hall.” Anything can be horror fiction now. Anyone can write it. It’s great!


NOAF: What were some of the surprising things you learned, while you were working on this book?

JN: Just how dominant women horror writers were in the 19th century. (Up to 70% of the horror fiction in the 19th century was written by women). Just how widespread horror fiction was, globally, before the 1970s. (The colonial print networks brought 19th century horror fiction to the colonies of the world, so that Edgar Allan Poe could be equally influential on Indonesian and Brazilian horror authors early in the 20th century, and execrable Western authors could dominate local tastes in horror, as Dennis Wheatley did in the former British colonies in Africa up through the 1970s). How effective, and frightening, even the oldest story could be, if I just cleared my mind of expectations and accepted the story on its own terms. (W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” has become a cliché, but if you try to approach it as if you didn’t know the story it becomes a taut, scary little story. The comfortable, Oxford world of M.R. James’ stories is an alien one to most of us, and his protagonists share little in common with us today, but damn if James isn’t a master of horror despite that.

Less happily, how wide-spread and long-lasting the bigotries were in horror fiction: racism, misogyny and sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, nativism, etc. etc. etc., were all too common in horror fiction through the 1960s and kept appearing even into the 1990s, when authors should have known better.

On a happier note, how pleasingly transgressive pre-1970s horror fiction could be. It’s commonly-accepted wisdom that the horror genre is innately conservative, but I don’t believe that’s accurate. Pre-1970s horror fiction can be politically transgressive, can transgress sexual mores, can feature shocking body horror and body violations, can deliver the unhappiest of endings to characters who don’t deserve it—can do, in other words, anything post-1970s horror fiction does, and even more shockingly, because it’s unexpected.

Lastly, just how good the best horror writers from outside the Anglophone world could be. So many of them have never been translated into English, but if and when they are, readers of English are in for some outstanding horror experiences. The Belgian writer Jehanne Jean-Charles is in the tradition of Saki but is, if anything, his superior. The Cuban writer Esther Díaz Llanillo’s stories are superb mergings of M.R. James and Franz Kafka. And the Japanese writer Ryo Hanmura’s novels are a gonzo mix of Marxism and every pop culture horror trope one could hope to find. Someday, I hope, we’ll get these and many other authors in English, and then all of our minds will be blown.


NOAF: You've put out nearly 20 books since 2003, so I've got to ask - what are your time management secrets? How do you work so efficiently?


JN: I cheat. I’ve been an academic librarian since 2001, and every job I’ve had at a college or university has had a scholarly publishing component to the job requirements. All of my bosses, when they read my work, have decided that what I write meets the requirement for scholarly publishing. So I get to write my books as part of my day job.

I’ve been able to write as much as I do are that I write every day, without exception, for as long as I can—I am not the most talented writer in the world, but I will outwork anybody. My wife understands how important writing is to me and is willing to support me in any way she can, from proofing my manuscripts to not blinking an eye when I tell her I need to go to London for two weeks to do research at the British Library. And when I started seriously writing books I decided that I’d have to give up a lot of pleasure time activities. So I don’t watch much tv or see many movies or do a lot of pleasure reading. I spend the time I used to spend on those things doing research and writing and rewriting books. I miss out on a lot that way, but I’m more productive as a writer.


NOAF: How did you first get started with writing Annotated Guides and Encyclopedias for comics, pulp fiction, superheroes, and Victoriana?

JN:  I got started writing because there were things I wanted to read—at first, scholarly annotations to comic books—that didn’t exist. After I’d written a few of those, I had the confidence to start thinking of myself as an actual writer, and to begin thinking about books I wanted to read that didn’t exist and that I thought I could write, like my Victorian literature encyclopedia. After a while I had more ideas for books than I’d ever have the time to write, and since then the books I write are the ones whose ideas won’t leave me, like the history of horror. I’d like to write a history of the Kansas City underworld, and a history of the British comic industry, and a history of how popular literature evolved after the end of every American war; but for the past couple of years I’ve been obsessed with writing a history of horror fiction, and now I’m obsessed with a novel idea. I have to follow the obsessions.


NOAF: I know projects can often grow larger that we expect, and often in directions we didn't expect. Any funny stories about scope creep?

JN: OMG. Nearly all of my books have suffered from scope creep, sometimes ridiculously so! If my publisher for the horror book hadn’t instituted a hard word limit of 110,000 words, I’d probably have written a book that was twice as long. My pulp encyclopedia really suffered from that, because I started out thinking I’d only do recurring heroes from pulp magazines—and surely that would be a small number—and then I said, “Why not include recurring heroes from radio shows?” and then “Why not include recurring heroes from detective novel series?” and then “Why not include heroes from movie serials and comic strips?” and then “Why not include recurring heroes from international pulps and dime novels and movie serials and comic strips?” and before I knew it the pulp encyclopedia was about 800,000 words long! (The manuscript is almost 1800 pages long).


NOAF: If I'm not mistaken, your next project is the second volume of your Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana. What can you tell us about it?

JN: The first edition of the Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana came out in 2005. It was an encyclopedia of genre fiction published in the 19th century, although I included Gothic fiction from as early as the 1760s—can’t write about the Victorians without including the Gothics—and I included a story published in 1905, because the character was more Victorian than Edwardian. The encyclopedia was a success—a finalist for a literary award, sold out its print run, won me some fans—but it was too expensive to reprint, and so it went out of print.

Last summer, it occurred to me that maybe the time was right to do a second edition of Victoriana. There were certain things about the original that had irritated me for a long time: the lack of a good index, the lack of scholarly apparatus like footnotes and a proper bibliography, the lack of certain authors and stories or novels. The first edition had been written from 2001-2004, which is about six generations in Internet time; the amount of critical and historical material available online now is staggering compared to what was online in 2001. Most of all, what bugged me and even embarrassed me about the first edition was that I’d written it when I was in my early thirties, when my personal politics were sometimes less than woke and when my literary/critical judgments could sometimes be callow. Now, in my early fifties, I’ve got better personal politics and a better set of critical judgments.

So I rewrote Victoriana. I rewrote most of the entries and incorporated new information into all of the entries—all the criticism and histories that had been written in the past twenty years. I removed some entries and added a number of others. I made the book scholarly, so everything’s footnoted now. I included a proper index. I corrected the mistakes of the first edition, cleaned up the embarrassingly wrong statements, and refined my judgments and criticism.

The resulting manuscript is over 2200 pages long, and will only be available as an ebook, but it’s finally the book that the first edition should have been, and anyone interested in the popular literature of the 19th century should find it very useful. (I’ve put the list of entries in the second edition here,  and put a sample entry online here:)

NOAF:  Thanks Jess!


POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.

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