Painted Monsters by Orrin Grey was one of the best books I read in 2015. Grey agreed to answer a few questions about the book and horror cinema—and his next project!
Painted Monsters is a book very much about horror cinema. Your work is highly referential and reverential, but still feels fresh. Did you set out to write stories that reflected your cinematic influences, or was this a happy accident?
OG: A little from column A, a little from column B … By the time I started putting together the table of contents for Painted Monsters, I’d already written several pieces that were highly influenced by film for one reason or another. From there, I stumbled upon the quote from Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968) that serves as the epigraph for the book, and I felt like I could use that as a jumping-off point to construct a collection that was both a survey of my fiction and also kind of a crash course in the history of horror cinema. While most of the other stories were already completed by then and had been published in other places, the title novelette was written explicitly to tie all those threads together and give the collection some thematic unity.
What makes horror movies so alluring, considering their often grisly subject matter? Why do you think horror has such an impact on young people?
OG: That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I’m not really sure I know the answer. I recently wrote an essay for the March issue of Nightmare Magazine, about writing and consuming horror that isn’t intended to be scary, because I feel like that’s mostly what I do. A lot of my favorite horror movies aren’t particularly grisly or scary; they’re the creaky old black-and-white Gothic chillers from the 30s and 40s, the Hammer horror movies, Vincent Price and Roger Corman doing Poe in vivid Technicolor. Ultimately, for me, I think I just love ghosts and monsters and spooky graveyards and all that stuff, and horror is where the monsters live.
As for why it has such an impact on young people, horror is capable of feeling transgressive—or at least of having that sheen of transgression—in a way that a lot of other genres struggle to manage. It can give you the sense that you’re doing something forbidden, that you’re seeing something you ought not see, and I think that’s a thrill a lot of us are looking for, especially as we’re growing up.
Sometimes your characters are conscious of how their circumstances are similar to horror fiction and cinema. How did you manage to balance the direct and indirect references in ways that were natural to the stories?
OG: It would be great to have a pithy response here that made me look smart, but I think “instinctively” is the real answer. The stories that are particularly self-aware are written in a voice that sounds a lot like the voice inside my own head. I tend to see everything in terms of connections to other things, especially when it comes to movies and fiction, and so I am constantly making comparisons, allusions, and associations.
That said, I did really try to make sure that I wasn’t falling into the trap of just leaving Easter eggs for the reader to find and feel clever about. I try to use allusions and references to horror fiction and cinema as a shorthand, a way to add weight and other dimensions to the story without bogging it down. When I’m writing, I like to lay out a whole bunch of possible explanations or causes or implications for whatever is going on, and then let the reader decide for themselves, and often my allusions let me add those implications without having to commit to them.
The titular “Painted Monsters,” which concludes the collection, is somewhat symbolic in that it burns down the old horror tropes, creatures, and styles and makes way for the undefined new. What trends do you see horror cinema and fiction taking, for better or worse?
OG: Man, who knows? It’s easy to look backward and see trends, it’s much more difficult to look forward and predict them. I think one of the great things that’s happening right now in both horror fiction and film is that the ubiquity of the Internet is giving rise to an increasingly fragmented field, where lots of different people are doing really exciting work taking the genre in all kinds of different directions, and they’re able to find an audience that responds to what they’re doing.
What trends do you see your fiction taking? What ideas, concepts, or even other genres would you like to explore as a writer?
OG: Again, it’s hard to say. I love writing the kinds of stories that went into Painted Monsters, and if audiences keep reacting well to them, I’ll probably keep writing stories that play with film and cinematic influences for as long as I can. But I’d also really like to go back to doing more stuff in the tradition of the great old English ghost stories by guys like M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Robert Westall, etc. I’m already a good chunk of the way toward my third collection—which is shaping up to be more varied and experimental than my previous two—but I’d love to see my fourth be dedicated to those guys, and full of those kinds of stories.
What are you reading now? What are you reading next?
OG: Right now I’m taking a break from contemporary stuff to read a couple of titles from Valancourt Books, who do these wonderful reissues of out-of-print volumes both classic and obscure. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have a small part in helping them usher J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted—which is one of my favorite books, and the basis for one of my favorite movies, James Whale’s The Old Dark House—back into print, and I’ve since written a couple of other introductions for them, most recently for The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral by Robert Westall. I just finished reading Wax by Ethel Lina White, which was a pretty delightful little mystery novel with a wax museum setting, and now I’m getting into Fingers of Fear by J.U. Nicholson.
After that is probably Ted E. Grau’s 2015 debut collection, The Nameless Dark, which promises to be utterly fantastic. I’ve read several of the stories where they were originally published, and they’ve all been phenomenal. I’m not sure what’s next after that; my to-read pile is precarious and unpredictable.
What authors, contemporary or otherwise, do you find having an influence on you? Who is challenging you to be better?
OG: Well, of course Mike Mignola, first and always. Those aforementioned English ghost story guys. William Hope Hodgson, Manly Wade Wellman, Fritz Leiber, T.E.D. Klein, Roger Zelazny, Junji Ito, Clive Barker, a lot of the usual suspects. I could make a list of classic weird authors all damn day and still leave somebody out. But I’m also a big fan of writers like Holly Black and M.T. Anderson, which might be less obvious.
There are so many great people working in the horror and weird fiction fields right now that it feels futile to name names, but I think a few of the ones who most consistently make me go, “Shit, I’d better up my game” are probably John Langan, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Stephen Graham Jones, Amanda Downum, and Gemma Files.
Who are a couple of up-and-coming authors that we should be keeping an eye on?
OG: I always hate this question, because I could list dozens of people and still miss some great ones. I already mentioned Ted E. Grau up above. Jon Padgett has a collection coming out from Dunham’s Manor in 2016, and I’ve loved everything that I’ve read by him so far, so I’m really looking forward to that, and to checking out more stuff by Matthew M. Bartlett and Christopher Slatsky sooner rather than later …
What are you writing now?
OG: The answer to this question is almost always “more short stories.” Most writers I know are perpetually plugging away at their next novel, but, while I’m sure I’ll write a novel one of these days, I’m in love with the short form and not in any hurry to leave it. Right now I’ve got a few solicitations in the works for some upcoming anthologies that I can’t yet name, as well as a chapbook for Dunham’s Manor Press that ties in with both the title novelette of Painted Monsters and a project I did with artist Michael Bukowski a while ago…
Where should we be looking for more of your work in the future?
OG: Aside from the aforementioned, I’ve got stories on their way in Swords v Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press and Children of Gla’aki from Dark Regions. I’m also always thinking in terms of the next collection, and I’ve got a lot of material already together for it, so I doubt if it’ll be three years between them this time.
Besides all that, I got the go-ahead from my publisher to give you a scoop on an upcoming project that I haven’t announced anywhere else yet: 2016 will see the publication of a book-length collection of the Vault of Secrets columns on vintage horror cinema that I’ve been writing for Innsmouth Free Press for the past few years. It’ll be called Monsters from the Vault, and it’ll also have some original material, and a cover from an artist I can’t announce just yet, but am very excited to be working with.
You can follow Orrin Grey on Twitter, and keep up with him at his blog.