Never one to do things by half measures, the legendary horror writer John
Skipp has turned to editing anthologies with a vengeance, his titles including Zombies, Demons and Werewolves, and Shapeshifters. His latest is Psychos, a collection of thirty-eight terrifying tales of serial
killers at large, written by the great masters of the genre. Authors include Neil Gaiman, Amelia Beamer, Robert
Bloch, and Thomas Harris.
Omnivoracious caught up with Skipp to ask him, among other
things, what makes for a great story about a psycho.
"Well, for starters, don't skimp on the psychosis! That's
your primary ingredient! Past that, I'd say it's a combination of great
storytelling on the one hand and great psychological probity on the other, with
language that manages to get authentically inside the experience of insanity,
and pull you along."
includes stories from several decades, Skipp has gained some perspective on how
psycho stories have changed over the years. "I think we've just gotten a lot
more honest about how crazy we all
are sometimes, and the painful minutia therein. Its part and parcel of a larger
shift"”our cultural embrace of the monster"”which you can see everywhere from the
success of [the Showtime series] Dexter to the proliferation of sexy vampire
and werewolf romance.
"Not saying that
everyone does crazy right. Not even close. But these days, we're much less apt
to suggest insanity by having the character cartoonily bug one eye out and go
'Hern hern hern"¦' You know? Even the dumbest CSI wannabe spinoff on television
demands greater sophistication than even fine writers of fiction used to
routinely get away with. And that is good. But the great writers"”the ones who
truly excel at this"”know too much, and are willing to share it in signature
bursts of alarming clarity. And this book is full of them.
Skipp had a hard
time picking just 38 stories from worthy possibilities. On the other hand, some
decisions were easy. "The ones that turned me off I could usually tell by the
end of the first page, if not the first paragraph, if I was in knowing hands.
Here's the thing: you can't fake this [stuff]. Either you know what you're
talking about, have some serious insight, or you don't. If you're just
guessing"”if you're like Barton Fink, just a tourist with a typewriter"”then you
can speculate all you want about the crazy world you live in, and why people do
the horrible things they do. I like my luggage a little more lived-in. And can
smell the difference a mile away."
"Editing an anthology," Skipp told us, "is like making a mix
CD for someone you love. You want to provide a smooth, contiguous, propulsive,
adventurous ride full of fast ones, slow ones, sad ones, funny ones,
blisteringly violent ones and soulfully restrained ones. Running the gamut, and
orchestrating transitions that you think will excite, propel, and contextualize
it to the max.
Now obviously, most people won't read the book straight
through. But putting them in calculated order allows readers to lock into the
flow, should they choose to. Or at least be ever-cognizant of the connective
The most fun for Skipp came from "The surprises. The
gamut-spanning revelations. Stacking one 'Omigod, I can't believe you wrote
that!' story after another. Getting to swim in the enormous talent pool and go,
This one, this one, and this one will work.' Making the smartest, vastest, most
entertaining case for the literature I can. And putting it all in one place."
But by far the
biggest challenge in putting together the anthology was making sure the stories
didn't seem too similar to one another. "You're looking at the kaleidoscope of
human mental dysfunction, a shattered funhouse mirror with a trillion
refracting shards pointing back at one simple act: people killing each other,
one at a time, over and over again. What differentiates them lies entirely in
the specifics. Who's doing it. To whom. How. Where. And why. That's why the
writer's voice and point of view is so important.
"I also devote a big chunk of my intro to differentiating
between the different kinds of crimes, and kinds of crazy. The hallucinating
schizophrenic is not the cold-blooded clinical psychopath is not the nice
person pushed just a little too far by horrendous circumstance. It's all very
personal. Which is kind of the point. And very much where the variety comes in."
Skipp admitted that for this anthology, "The sheer amount of
both real and imaginary human horror I had to swallow, in the months of
research involved, really wore me down hard. It took months to get the reek of
madness out of my skin. But you guys should be juuuuust fine!"
horror can also sometimes include the behind-the-scenes skinny on acquiring
permissions to reprint a story. Skipp couldn't share much with us, but did note
that "I could publish an excellent novel for less than it would cost to reprint
a Roald Dahl story right now."
editing anthologies represents just a small part of an oeuvre spanning decades,
we asked Skipp about being a survivor in a field littered with the carcasses of
the fallen. "I attribute the bulk of my longevity to the fact that I haven't
died yet. Past that, the biggest thing I bring to the party is unbridled
enthusiasm. I love my own work. I love the great work of others. I have devoted
my life to keeping that torch aflame"”setting myself on fire as needed"”and then
passing it on. If I matter to anyone, that's probably why. Plus, I'm a lot of
fun at parties."
Skipp also admitted, with
satisfaction, that "This is probably the busiest, most intense time of my
entire weird career. I've teamed up with filmmaker Andrew Kasch (Thirsty, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy) to co-direct and produce
a slew of crazy feature films, starting with The Long Last Call and Rose:
The Bizarro Zombie Musical. Our first short, Stay At Home Dad, from a script by Cody Goodfellow, is freaking out
audiences and winning awards on the festival circuit. We just took the audience
bronze at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Toronto."
Skipp also has two other books published in October: "Sick Chick Flicks, my twisted
triple-bill of fem-o-centric horror screenplays, is now out in trade paper from
Cemetery Dance"¦And my new horror/crime/suspense imprint, Ravenous Shadows, is
publishing The Dark, a fantastic new
L.A. horror novel by up-and-comers Scott Bradley and Peter Giglio."