Stephen Mark Rainey Interview By Dark Regions Weird Fiction Editor Brian M. Sammons
Stephen Mark Rainey is an author and editor of a number of books and the late, great Deathrealm Magazine. He has written six novels and over a hundred short stories, many of those appearing in various collections, including Other Gods (2008) and The Gaki & Other Hungry Spirits (2011) both from Dark Regions Press.
BMS – Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Mark. Now before authors began to write, they were readers, so what were some of your earliest literary loves? Who inspired you and made you want to keep on reading?
SMR – My mom read to me as a kid, as did many of my teachers in elementary school, which fostered an early love of books. Once I was old enough to comprehend two consecutive sentences, I damn near became a resident of the local library. I gravitated toward creepy stuff — I know, it’s shocking — and books like The Spooky Thing by William O. Steele, Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum, Strange Guests by Brad Steiger, and many others really got under my skin. When I was nine, I read 2001: A Space Odyssey — right after I saw the movie — and it excited me like nothing else I’d ever read. At first, my dad didn’t want to buy it for me because he said I wouldn’t understand it, but he finally did, and I tell you this — whether I “got” it didn’t matter all that much. I read and re-read that book until it fell apart. And then there was The Haunting of Hill House. A friend of mine had the Reader’s Digest Condensed version of it, and I read that when I was around ten. Again, I’m sure I didn’t fully “get” it, but by god, it kept me awake for a long succession of nights. Those two books probably had more long-term effects on me than any others.
BMS – Do you have a favorite book? One you might have read multiple times? If so, what would that be?
SMR – My “favorite” anything goes along with whatever mood I’m in at any given time, and today’s favorite probably won’t be tomorrow’s (I’m fickle that way). But I think over the past two or three decades, I’ve returned to William Peter Blatty’s Legion (the sequel to The Exorcist) more than any other book. It’s a fabulous novel, maybe better than The Exorcist itself. It’s quirky, it’s humorous, it’s scary, it’s contemplative. Blatty’s characters are superb. Detective Kinderman’s musings on God and the universe are extensive but don’t interrupt the narrative. If anything, they actually serve to make me more sympathetic to Christianity than I have been for most of my adult life. I find that refreshing when I’m weary of so much else, both in reading material and in the real world.
BMS – Most of your work has appeared in the horror genre; was there always a love for the spooky stuff you would write about, early on, or did that come later?
SMR – Oh yes, my affinity for horror goes back to being a perpetually scared-as-hell youngster, mostly from watching shows like The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and shitloads of black-and-white horror and science-fiction movies from the 50s and early 60s. Back then, that stuff wasn’t cheesy — it was ten kinds of scary to this young lad. And of course I adored anything related to dinosaurs. I was a devout Godzilla worshipper by the time I was six. When I’d watch a scary movie or read a creepy book, I’d sometimes share that stuff at show-and-tell time at school. Eventually, it dawned on me that it was every bit as much fun scaring other people as it was to be scared. Thus began the storytelling career, I reckon.
BMS – Do you recall when you first thought about writing your own stories? Was it a sudden epiphany, a gradual thing, or something else entirely?
SMR – Well, I actually started out with more interest in art than in writing. (I actually have a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from the University of Georgia.) As a wee lad, I loved to draw pictures of monsters and such, and eventually I started making up my own dorky little comic books featuring Godzilla and other giant monsters. The prose stories came sometime later — I think it was in tenth grade that I took a creative writing class and tried my hand at short stories. The first one I wrote was called “God’s Triangle,” a science-fiction story about the Bermuda Triangle, actually experienced in outer space — all heavily influenced by 2001. I then wrote a handful of exceptionally gory tales that I think made my teacher wonder whether I shouldn’t be in an institution rather than a public school. I did take an interest in journalism, though, and got on the school newspaper staff. I also joined the college newspaper staff when I went away to school. In my sophomore year, the college literary magazine sponsored a short story writing contest, in which the winner would receive $25 and have his or her story published. I made up my mind to win that contest, and I did, with a sword-and-sorcery tale that offered more than a slight nod to Lord of the Rings. After college, I started reading loads of horror anthologies just for fun, and somewhere along the line — after discovering the joys of Lovecraft — I decided to try writing short fiction with an eye toward actually selling it.
BMS – What was your first sale and to what market?
SMR – My first honest-to-god paid sale of prose was a filmbook of Godzilla vs. the Thing, which I sold to the late, great The Monster Times when I was 15 years old. As for short fiction, I think my first “sale,” such as it was, might have been to a small press magazine called The Haunted Journal. It was a somewhat Lovecraftian story called “Smiert Galgalith,” which I wrote around 1984. Quite a few sales to small press zines followed, and eventually, I began selling regularly to pro markets. Because I am older than an old fart, that early stuff is kind of hazy.
BMS – What is the best thing about being a writer?
SMR – The relentless barrages of women hurling themselves at me.* I mean, it’s the same for you, right? If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I’d put myself through the rigors.
BMS – What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
SMR – Being older than an old fart. For over 30 years, my day jobs have required intense computer work, the job I’ve held for the past 17 years (doing production work for a provider of resources for school teachers) being the most rigorous of all. By the time I get home in the evening, my eyes, hands, and wrists are all but spent. Usually by 8 o’clock in the evening, the world has become a big, indistinct blur and my arms feel like they’re full of broken glass. As long as this is my station in life, writing any further novels is probably not in the cards. Fortunately, composing short fiction isn’t as physically taxing, as I can start and finish projects in a reasonable period of time, and usually take some breaks in between. As it is, I’ve always been fonder of writing short stories than novels, though I do have a couple of novel-length works in my head I’d love to actually get to someday.
BMS – Now before I knew you as an author, I first knew you as the editor of the excellent, and much missed, Deathrealm Magazine. Of the two hats, author and editor, which do you prefer wearing?
SMR – In general, I prefer writing. I love being able to immerse myself in some world my brain has conjured up and the sense of achievement when it all comes together. In general, I enjoyed editing Deathrealm, particularly when I’d come upon tales that hit on all cylinders. The slush pile did become tiring — no, fatiguing — so during those last few years of its run, I had to severely limit my reading periods. I did receive invaluable assistance from folks like James Robert Smith and Danielle D’Attilio, whose eyes for fiction I trusted.
BMS – What are the best and worst things about being an editor?
SMR – Speaking specifically of Deathrealm, the best thing was seeing the finished product on the magazine racks. The worst part was getting it there. Only a small fraction of my time spent on the magazine was actually editing it. Even with some assistance, it was essentially a one-man job — managing the sales and marketing, creating the physical product, parleying with distributors, playing accountant and collection agent (which, during the last year of Deathrealm’s run, became my primary job). I managed it for a full decade, though, and I have few regrets. Because of Deathrealm, I met some of the best writers, some of the best people I’ve ever known. I loved being known as Mr. Deathrealm in the horror community. It was an identity I valued. You know, for a full ten years after Deathrealm’s retirement, I occasionally received submissions to the magazine. Since then, I have edited a few anthologies as well, and I quite enjoyed doing them. With those, I didn’t have to handle the publishing end, which is something I never want to subject myself to again.
BMS – In addition to writing novels, stories and editing magazines and books, you’ve done a number of audio dramas set in the world of the famous 1960s horror soap opera, Dark Shadows. How did that come about?
SMR – Having (co-)written the novel, Dark Shadows: Dreams of the Dark (with Elizabeth Massie) for HarperCollins, I had a nice foot in the door to write the audio drama scripts. The producer at Big Finish was a fan of the novel, and he asked whether I’d be interested in coming up with some new stories for the audio series. He sent me a finished script to use as a template, and I took to the format pretty readily. Of all the media that influenced me in my youngest days, Dark Shadows, along with Godzilla, was the most profound — I swear I could have kept writing Dark Shadows until people begged me to stop — and I wrote three of the scripts: Path of Fate, Curse of the Pharaoh, and Blood Dance. Of them, Path of Fate is the most popular among fans, though I personally had the best time writing Curse of the Pharaoh, as it incorporates some distinctly Lovecraftian elements and resolves the story of the Leviathans, one of the more open-ended subplots of the original TV series. I tell you, it was a blast hearing the original actors playing the characters I knew and loved as a kid speaking lines I wrote. It did make me hyper-aware of any shortcomings in the scripts, I can tell you. On the other hand, there were some moments when the actors just became those characters and I completely forgot I had written what they were saying. When I listened to the climax of Path of Fate for the first time, I got chills — just because Lara Parker and David Selby were so damned good.
BMS – How was writing those different than writing a more traditional story?
SMR – Plotting and outlining the storylines wasn’t very different from coming up with a novelette; the scripts run about 10,000 words long. The key was focusing on dialogue and minimal narration to propel the story while keeping it natural-sounding. No information dumps, no overly lengthy descriptive prose.
BMS – If I had no idea who you were and asked you the dreaded question: “So what kind of stories do you write?” how would you answer that?
SMR – I usually answer “scary stuff.” To most muggles, it’s less intimidating than hearing “stories that will shred your mind and prompt you to hide your children if I’m anywhere within your line of sight.”
BMS – If I asked you for three stories or books that would give a reader who is unfamiliar with your work the best representation of what you as an author, what would those three be?
SMR – I’m going to say Blue Devil Island, my WWII novel, because I consider it my single most engaging work of fiction, with what I think is an exciting blend of straight-up war drama and distinctly Lovecraftian horror; Other Gods, my short fiction collection, because it features tales that span almost thirty years, most either directly or tangentially related to the Lovecraft mythos; and my novella, The God of Moab, as it is both complex in form and straightforward in theme. I think it appeals equally to hardcore readers of the macabre and mere dabblers in dark fiction. All of these are currently available.
BMS – You and I did a little something together that will be coming out from Dark Regions Press soon. I’m talking about the anthology called Return of the Old Ones which has your story, “Messages from a Dark Deity” in it. Can you tell us a little bit about that story, not only a teaser of what it is about, but how it came about?
SMR – I wrote the original version of that tale several years ago for an anthology that ended up vanishing before it saw the light of day. It’s about the last days before the Cthulhupocalypse, which of course is a global calamity, but the story focuses on a single individual who becomes aware of things changing around him, at first subtly and then more dramatically. In this one, I wanted to show the Old Ones in something of a paradoxical light: they’re distant and impersonal in their global assault and yet agonizingly intimate to individual people. As a human being, to the Old Ones, you might be as insignificant as a dust mite, yet Nyarlathotep will still appear to torment you personally. Imagine that every last soul on Earth should receive such a visit just before the world as we know it ends. When it became clear the anthology for which “Messages” was planned had gone the ways of the wind, I decided to sit on the tale for at least a while because I felt it was very strong and could eventually find a worthy home. Return of the Old Ones was just the ticket — hell, the story was already almost tailor-made for it. With a few modifications of my own and some valuable feedback from you regarding its structure, the new draft ended up far better than the original, so I’m actually glad the story didn’t come out in its earlier form.
BMS – Can you share any info on what you’re working on now?
SMR – I’ve got a couple of short stories in the works, both for planned anthologies, and another I’m plotting just because the idea came into my head and disturbed me. A long time ago, I started a novel about geocaching, and I keep threatening to go back to it — maybe when circumstances are such that I can write more than an hour at a time without my eyes fucking giving out on me.
BMS – Any words of advice, or even warnings, you would like to give to beginning authors and for first time editors?
SMR – Give up. Go home. What the hell is wrong with you?
BMS – What is the best way for people to learn more about you and your work?
SMR – For my day-to-day misadventures, visit me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/s.markrainey) or my blog (stephenmarkrainey.blogspot.com). At my website — www.stephenmarkrainey.com — there are links to virtually every book of mine available.
BMS – Thanks again for your time today, and for all the wonderful stories, books, and magazine issues you’ve given us over the years.