Wow. Here we are. Launch day. The online incarnation of Library of the Damned is born. Thank you for joining us. I hope we can turn this place into something really cool and valuable to you, the readers and the genre community. I’ll talk more in a future post about why I decided to throw myself into this project and why now, but for the next few days, let’s focus on the books and the talent behind them. Because that’s the guiding spirit of this site: good horror, and good conversations about horror.
For the next 31 days, we’ll be talking with horror writers about the stories that have scared them the most and the scariest scenes they themselves have written. Get your pens ready, folks, because by the end of the month you’re going to have one hell of a to-be-read list.
Choosing which interview to launch LibraryOfTheDamned.com with was not as hard as you might expect. You see, years ago when I was still publishing books (not writing them), I launched the horror line of my micro-press with a novella by New York-based author Nicholas Kaufmann, a wonderful writer and now friend. And while I don’t consider myself particularly superstitious, his book was the beginning of very good things for my imprint, so maybe just maybe that ole Kaufmann magic will work again.
Seriously though, all joking aside, Kaufmann’s work deserves every bit of the attention it’s gotten. He’s been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Thriller, and Shirley Jackson Awards. His books include General Slocum’s Gold, Chasing the Dragon, Dying is My Business and Die and Stay Dead. And he’s also written for such properties as Zombies vs. Robots and The Rocketeer. His newest novel, In the Shadow of the Axe, is out now.
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31 Days of Halloween… with Nicholas Kaufmann
Describe a time when a scene in a horror novel really unnerved you or caused you to turn on all the lights.
That’s a tough one. It’s very rare that the written word truly frightens me. I think, for me, real fear relies on other parts of the brain than reading does: visual or aural stimuli, mostly. A glimpse of movement from the corner of my eye or an incongruous sound will scare me a lot more than words on a page, probably because I can have some control over the images those words put in my mind, even if that control is limited, while sights and sounds are completely out of my control. Additionally, so much of horror nowadays deals with the grotesque rather than the creepy, and the creepy will always scare me more than the grotesque. Or perhaps I’ve just become jaded from overexposure.
That said, I do have an answer for you, one that dates back to a novel I read probably back in the early 1990s – before I was such a jaded reader! I was reading a copy of Marc Brandel’s The Lizard’s Tail on an airplane, either on my way to or from visiting my father in Hong Kong. It’s a totally trashy 1970s horror novel about a guy who loses his hand in an accident, and then it is strongly implied, although never explicitly shown, that his severed hand has taken on a life of its own and is reacting to his emotional states, in particular killing everyone who makes him angry. (Oliver Stone turned it into the movie The Hand in 1981 and, if I recall, removed all the ambiguity from the story.) Anyway, there’s a scene toward the very end of the novel where our protagonist finds a mysterious shoe box and opens it. What’s inside that shoe box – no spoilers here; besides, it’s all about the build-up – was so horrifying and unexpected that I actually jumped in my airplane seat and dropped the book into my lap! I’m sure I’ve had other little moments of shivers reading horror novels, but this is the scare that stuck with me for years.
In your opinion, what is the all-time scariest horror novel or short story?
This is another difficult question! I’ve read so many wonderful novels and short stories I could name here, all of which showcase a masterful level of prose and an unbridled imagination. But the scariest? That’s really hard. You can’t tell from reading this, but I actually thought on this question for a long, long time before making a selection, and that selection is Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train.” I’m a huge fan of Barker’s work, and his Books of Blood collections stand not just among my favorites of his oeuvre but also among my favorites in the genre as a whole. I’ve spoken in other interviews about how seminal a moment it was in my development as a writer to randomly come across the Books of Blood in a local bookstore. There are a ton of great stories to choose from in these volumes, but “The Midnight Meat Train” stands out to me as the scariest. Part of that is simply because it takes place on the New York City subway, and I live in New York City and take the subway regularly. But beyond that, it’s such a wonderful melding of the new horror that came about in the ’70s and ’80s with the weird fiction of the ’30s and ’40s. Mahogany, the man who kills people on the subway, is like something right out of a slasher movie. But the creatures he serves, the beings to whom he feeds the bodies of his murder victims, are like something out of Lovecraft or Bierce: strange, malformed creatures who have secretly ruled the city for centuries from deep beneath the ground. And like many a weird tale, the man who discovers this horror, Leon Kaufman (hmm, another connection), gets sucked into it, becomes a part of it rather than simply another victim. It’s such an incredible story, and a real chiller.
What’s the scariest scene and/or book you yourself have written?
I think my story “(F)Earless,” which can be found in my collection Still Life: Nine Stories, might be my scariest for a number of reasons, including probably some of the spookiest imagery I’ve written to date, but I feel weird making that determination myself. I’d prefer to leave it up to my readers. Instead, I’m going to cheat a little and tell you about a scene that frightened me as I was writing it. I was in college at the time, working on a novel that was never published titled Dream Lake. It’s based on an actual folktale that, remarkably, is found in numerous locations across North America. The reason that’s remarkable is because pretty much every other folktale is tied to a single location, but this one is not. You’ll find many lakes with the name Dream Lake, and all of them share the same folktale about the origin of its name, a story that involves murder and a ghostly visitation within a dream that ultimately catches the killer. This novel was an attempt, through fiction, to find the reason for this same folktale popping up in so many locations. The scene that scared me while I was writing it involves an old man who is in prison for murdering his wife and dumping her body in the lake decades ago. He makes a phone call from the prison to the novel’s protagonist, but he’s greeted with an operator’s recorded voice telling him his call can’t be completed as dialed. The voice repeats the message but the tone shifts, like a tape recorder slowing down, until finally the voice, now completely different, tells him, “Turn around.” He does. And there, standing behind him, is the rotting, waterlogged corpse of his dead wife. The scene ends with her arms reaching out to grab him. I freaked myself out so much writing that scene that I had to keep looking behind me while I was at my desk! It sounds so silly now, but it really spooked me at the time.
Top three fears?
I definitely have a fear of drowning, even though I love to swim. Any scene where someone is trying to swim up from the depths for air but can’t because of ice on the water or some other obstruction is really going to get under my skin. You’ll never find me holding my breath along with a character in an underwater movie scene! I also have a fear of being trapped in tight spaces underground, where no one can find me or help me. There were some scenes in the movie The Descent that really scared me, and none of them had to do with the monsters! I’m tempted to say my third fear is a fear of heights, but that’s not strictly true. I’m not afraid of heights, exactly, but if I’m up high and there’s no fence or I’m too close to the edge, forget about it! I get a crazy feeling in my stomach and have to step back. But if there is a fence or if I’m looking out a window it’s not a big deal. Go figure! Even my phobias are picky!