As a horror author who submits fiction to publishers, I often find myself standing in the cold outside the gates of the City of Readers. As an editor who gets submissions for anthologies, I’m also someone who decides who gets to come in.
In other words, I’m both a “gatekeeper” and someone who is “gate-kept.” So a question I’m always pondering is: What is the role (and responsibility) of a gatekeeper?
Over the years I’ve submitted my work to hundreds of editors and agents. In my experience, about half of them never respond at all. Many of the rest send a form rejection, usually months to even years later. Only a small percentage get back to me within several weeks to tell me they’ve passed on my work or not, and a handful of those will explain why.
Turns out, every gatekeeper I’ve interacted with has taught me how to become a better gatekeeper myself, sometimes by example, often by teaching me how not to behave.
“What else is new?” some of you might be asking. In that case: It’s turning me into MORE of one!
Here’s why: It’s the only way to get my shit out there. Allow me to explain.
I happen to have been blessed with an excellent and generous publisher, D&T Publishing. Despite being a small press, D&T has done more to promote my debut cosmic folk horror novella, MALINAE, than the “Big Four” presses do for most of their authors. For that I am eternally grateful and, indeed, it’s the main reason the book has gotten out there as much as it already has, which is quite a bit.
However, in the sales world, we all know that a tiny percentage of products get the vast majority of buys. Take Coca Cola for instance, which snags half of the soda sales in the U.S. Is Coke really the best carbonated sugar water in the country? Not even close (not counting its cocaine-laced days, of course)! Hell, I’ve probably drank fifty different small batch colas better tasting and less horrible for you than Coke. But you’ve only heard of a few of them, and barely, at that. Because it’s not just about the product—which does have to be adequate—it’s about the marketing.
Let’s take this into the horror world. Stephen King alone gets the vast majority of horror fiction reads. Now, before going any further, I’m not here to shit on “the King.” I cut my literary teeth on the man and found him formative in my teens. Today, I still enjoy many of his stories and novels and think he’s a formidable storyteller.
But is he the best horror author in the world, the way sales suggest? Not even close! Hell, I’ve probably read at least fifty horror authors who are better writers and storytellers than him. But you’ve only heard of a few of them, and barely, at that. Because it’s not just about the product—which does have to be adequate—it’s about the marketing.
So what’s my point? That people should stop drinking Coke and reading King?
Of course not. Simply that the playing field is far from level, and we authors don’t have the luxury of simply writing good books and expecting them to fly magically into the hands of readers.
All my life, people have been trying to shut me up.
It started in grade school, when speaking my mind got me sent out into the hall. This kept up through junior high, where I’d commit the sin of “talking back” to teachers, earning me a double-digit tally of detentions.
I mostly stayed out of trouble through high school and college by funneling my unauthorized thoughts into writing, without ever bothering to try to publish any of it.
In my twenties, when I took a job as an environmental organizer, the state would muzzle my legal protests with detainments and arrests. On one occasion, I was passing out brochures on a public sidewalk when a SWAT team member and former Blackwater operative threw me to the pavement, kneed me in the neck, and confiscated my camera before carting me off to jail.
Upon discovering the political power of the written word, my activist career from that point on involved me being censored and blacklisted by government agencies and corporate-funded NGOs for daring to critique their failures.
After retiring from activism in favor of journalism, despite writing for dozens of publications and winning multiple awards, I eventually learned that editors would reject any pitch that didn’t conform to their own rigid ideologies.
Venturing into the horror fiction world, I was able to sneak several of my short stories into some forward-thinking publications and subversive anthologies, but not a single publishing house would touch my far more “controversial” longer fiction.
But 2020 changed everything. That’s when I sent my novella, MALINAE, to D&T Publishing’sDawn Ellis Shea. Not only didn’t Dawn blanch at what I had to say, she offered me a contract for the book (coming out in April).
Praise the dark gods for people like Dawn; the opposite of censors, they’re the amplifiers raising up the voices of artists the establishment doesn’t want you to hear.
So, I’ve been thinking lately (never too late to start!): Is there anything more narcissistic than publishing a newsletter dedicated solely to oneself?
Of course, the reality of being a writer today is that if you don’t promote your work, no one will read it. While I certainly write for myself, I’m also doing so to connect with weirdos like you. Hence this newsletter.
Now, I’ve tried to turn Josh’s Worst Nightmare into something larger than myself, focusing on biological horror fiction rather than just my latest scribblings. Which is why I’ve done everything from putting out my infamous Haiku Horror Reviews of bio-horror books, to hosting Beast Bout brackets (where you get to vote on which monster you think would win in an actual fight), to short, subtitled music videos I’ve been calling “Micro Bio Horror.”
But I’ll be honest: Engagement wasn’t that high for these attempts, so instead of putting time into stuff people aren’t that interested in–don’t worry, I’m not hurt!–I’ve regressed back to simply promoting my latest work and sharing a few horror fiction-related musings in this here editorial.
Still, ultimately, I’d like to make Josh’s Worst Nightmare something you’re excited about, rather than just one more thing to labor through with an obligatory scan, ignore, or send straight to the trash.
I’ve deliberately kept a low profile during the last few weeks, not wishing to add to the flood of (mostly mis)information flowing from the fingers of the anxious and ill-informed.
I wanted to break my silence by assuring you that I’m not here to fan the flames of fear, but to help put them out. While we’re not out of the coronavirus woods yet, it may be that before very long we’ll be approaching the edge of the forest. Indeed, China’s outbreak peaked sometime in February—with only a trickle of new cases these days—with life over there in the process of returning to normal.
If the most densely populated nation in the world that made zero advance preparations for this pandemic is through the worst, that bodes very well for everywhere else. I’m not saying there aren’t challenges ahead, or that governments shouldn’t be enacting strict measures, or that people shouldn’t be taking precautions. To nip this in the bud, we’ve all got to come together (not literally!).
While I don’t want to downplay things, trends do suggest that COVID-19 will peak and decline before very long in most regions of the world. It’s this evidence-based optimism that makes me feel justified to write not about the pandemic itself, but people’s reactions to it.
Simply put: People haven’t been reading enough horror fiction and it shows.
Some of you may be aware that I’ve been researching/writing/worrying/warning about disease outbreaks in both a fictional and journalistic capacity for over a decade, specifically since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. So, back in January, while the world was distracted with who was saying what mean words to whom on social media, I was paying close attention to the outbreak of a new respiratory ailment in Wuhan, China.
Having read many zombie novels, I recognized the plot line: A handful of cases in some far-flung region. Initial reports suppressed or dismissed. When the reality of the incidents could no longer be denied, people telling themselves it couldn’t happen here. And then, before long, the zombies scratching at your door.
While I didn’t expect corpses to reanimate (OK, maybe a little), I did begin to physically and psychologically prepare for what I knew was probably inevitable. I started disengaging from public social events, stocking up on food and other household products, and quietly suggesting others do the same (nearly all of whom ignored me and/or thought I was crazy).
The result was that, come March, when people were finally starting to wake up to the situation and began freaking out, my anxiety had already peaked and is now on the downslope. What this means is I’m not needlessly feeding the collective fear by emotional venting, spreading inaccurate (or out of context) information, or prognosticating apocalypse.
Speaking of feeding, since I had already procured my necessities during a time of overabundance, I didn’t need to do any last-minute panic shopping and add any stress to the supply chain. (The most ironic thing about panic shopping is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: When everyone buys way more than they need all at once for fear of running out, they genuinely do create scarcity). Had more folks paid closer attention to zombie novels, perhaps there would now be enough toilet paper to go around.
While horror fiction can certainly warn us about specific calamities such as disease outbreaks, its much greater benefit is how it can help prevent a lot of needless panic, which is more dangerous than any pandemic.
In other words, reading horror fiction is like a vaccine, inoculating you with a harmless germ of terror to build up your immunity for when shit really hits the fan.
The COVID-19 pandemic is but one example of multitudes, as life itself is full of both rays of light as well dark twists and turns we’d best prepare for. This isn’t to say we let ourselves be consumed by the shadow by, say, reveling in snuff films or drinking wine from the skulls of our enemies. But we can’t afford to ignore it, either.
To the contrary, people’s largely unhelpful and sometimes hysterical reactions to recent events prove that the world could benefit from more people who have built up a bit of tolerance to fear. And it just so happens horror fiction is one of the best tools at our disposal to help us get there.
As a biological and microbial horror author, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t have something to say about the coronavirus.
Worrisome though it may be, COVID-19 is still less dangerous than a slew of other illnesses teeming around the world as we speak. Indeed, despite its seemingly higher mortality rate (which many experts think might actually be much lower due to many undiagnosed milder cases), it would take a lot for this virus to surpass even influenza’s yearly death toll—a disease we rarely fear—much less malaria’s.
While it’s possible things may change, even in the case of a global pandemic it’s probable that only a fraction of the population will catch the bug, the vast majority of whom will come out healthy on the other side. As with any disease, the greatest risk falls on seniors and those with compromised immune systems, and it’s for them we should be taking the necessary governmental and personal precautions to avoid spreading this—or any other—illness.
However, the point of this post isn’t to discuss the virus, it’s to shed light (shed dark?) on the behavior of certain folks in response to the news.
One would think horror writers such as myself—particularly ones who write about disease—would be gleeful over the latest outbreak, as it provides new source material and a vindication of our not-so-subtle warnings over the years to better prepare for these inevitable threats. Not so, however. Quite to the contrary, in fact.
While I obviously can’t speak for all horror authors, I know that the vast majority of us write horror not because we enjoy suffering and want to see more of it, but because we’re sensitive to life’s shadow and seek a way to sanely process it. Indeed, I haven’t seen a single horror writer online attempting to fan the flames of hysteria regarding the current outbreak.
But then there are the ghouls. These folks aren’t fiction writers, of course, as they have no useful insight on the human condition worth communicating. Instead, they seek attention by deliberately stoking fear through the spread of false information, apocalyptic opinion-making, and/or political gamesmanship. It’s one thing to crack jokes in an attempt to lighten the mood, but these disturbed folks only seek to darken it.
Personally, I loathe the behavior of these ghouls, and I have confronted several of them online in an attempt to get them to see how irresponsible—and downright harmful—their figurative shit-spewing truly is. More often than not, they are so unhappy with their lives their only solace comes from spreading their misery around. When they hear about a new outbreak, it’s almost as if a part of them actually WANTS it to turn into a deadly pandemic. These people exemplify the worst of human nature and I am nearly sickened (pun intended) every time I see their antics on display.
Nothing is more contagious than fear. The ghouls wield that powerful emotion recklessly with no intention other than to harm. But a skillful horror writer can harness it to get us to prepare—both psychologically and otherwise—for nature’s inevitable dark turns and show us how to make it safely back into the light.