Out of childhood horrors, Strieber forges books of fear

Twilight Zone Magazine, August 1986

Whitley Strieber has that look.
     Few horror writers have it, and most probably do not consciously want it: the distant, haunted look of a man who dwells in memory – and darkness.
     “The world I really live in is one of memory and imagination. Where imagination may be, in fact, a form of memory,” Strieber says.
     On that level, Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King are perhaps the only other writers working today who can tell you-if you're really listening – how they have witnessed or experienced events far more twisted and frightening than any they have ever set down on paper.
     The Wolfen (1979), The Hunger (1981), Black Magic (1982), The Night Church (1983), WarDay and the Journey Onward (1984), and Wolf of Shadows (1985) have sold in the millions of copies. WarDay, which garnered excellent reviews, was a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, making Strieber one of the few unabashed writers of horror to be both a popular and a critical success. Of course, this success did not happen overnight to Strieber, who was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1945, and now lives with his wife and young son in New York.
     “It only took ten years, seven unpublished novels, and a lot of blood before I sold The Wolfen,” he notes wryly.
     Strieber, who earlier had some experience himself as a production assistant on such films as The Owl and the Pussycat and Diary of a Mad Housewife, has also seen his first two novels made into major motion pictures-though neither with very satisfying results. Yet in spite of his continuing success with the novel form, Strieber is not sifting back. Last winter his “young adult” novel Wolf of Shadows was jointly published by Knopf and the Sierra Club to typically rave reviews. His newest novel, in a day-after-tomorrow setting, is called Nature's End and was lust published in April by Warner Books.
     Like his prose style, Strieber is deceptively quiet and unassuming. Yet his imagination is clearly powerful-and subtly ferocious. Although he's very pleasant, it's evident that he is a man who looks deeply – very deeply – into the shadows.

WIATER: WarDay, which you co-wrote with James W. Kunetka, was taken much more seriously by the media and critical press than if it were 'just a bestselling novel' about the probable consequences of a nuclear holocaust. Were you hoping for that kind of response?
STRIEBER: Oh, yes! WarDay is much more than “a novel.” It is living proof that the genre I work in the horror genre-is, potentially at least, terribly important to this particular era. The book breaks out of form on so many different levels that it's not really correct, I think, to compare it with another novel. It uses fiction for a purpose. It uses fiction to make a point. It's more a potential documentary than it is a novel.

WIATER: You certainly broke out of form by having you and collaborator James W. Kunetka appear as the main characters. Why?
STRIEBER: We wanted to make the reader feel that this is real. That what I'm reading is real; it's a documentary. It's not “fiction.” And the best way to do that is to be as natural and open as possible. The purpose of us as characters is to add impact and a sense of immediacy to the story.

WIATER: Didn't you once intend to follow up with a direct sequel called WarDay: Europe and Russia? Is that still forthcoming?
STRIEBER: No. I wrote instead a book called Nature's End. It's similar to WarDay in that I also wrote it with James Kunetka. It's set fifty years in the future, and it's about the state of the environment then. We wrote most of a WarDay sequel from the European and Russian viewpoint, but as far as I know, there is no plan to publish it. I felt Nature's End was a more important book, given the pressing environmental concerns that the public seems almost totally unaware of or are unaffected by. And we wanted to go and do that; we may turn back later to WarDay: Europe and Russia, but I'm not sure.

WIATER: To backtrack for a moment, have you always been interested in writing, and in horror?
STRIEBER: All I did as a kid was read and go to the movies. I was one of those pale wimps who ran around [laughs] ... You've seen them – you were probably one of them, too.

WIATER: [laughs] I don't know what you're talking about ....
STRIEBER: ... with a stack of books from the library piled up to your nose. Thin, easily pushed over by bullies. I was much safer in the dark of the movie theater where no one could see me!

WIATER: All right, so many of us can relate to that. But how did that eventually lead to your becoming a “horror” writer rather than, say, a romance or mystery or science fiction writer?
STRIEBER: First of all, let me say I recognize genre-ization simply as a marketing tool. I write books that deal with fear. That's what I really do. Not “horror novels,” but books that have to do with fear. Stephen King writes books about fear, Peter Straub does. And I do that because I was formed, in my own background, with a life that was filled with arbitrary tragedies. From the age of ten to the age of twenty, it's just a litany of one catastrophe after another in my family.
     Beginning with my grandfather's sudden and early death, which really threw the family into a very bad situation. One of my uncles was murdered about a year later. Six months after that, his wife was nearly burned to death and ended up in the hospital for two years-and she had four kids. My father lost his voice to cancer, and we nearly went bankrupt. Our house burnt down. This all happened at about the same time, and it was like some dark force coming in just striking us, again and again and again.
     The culmination of this whole thing, as far as I was concerned, was when I ended up a student at the University of Texas at the same time as Charles Whitman. And I found myself hiding behind this small retaining wall, and he had shot two women not far from where I was hiding. He had shot them in the stomach and they were in agony. Screaming. Begging for help. And a fellow beside me behind this retaining wall went out and Whitman blew the top of his head off. Another man came out from behind a tree and was shot in the face and
killed. And I realized then that those two girls had been shot that way to attract people to them, and he was waiting up there to kill off anyone who came to help them. And I stayed behind that wall and listened to them wind down . . . get silent. It took me a long time to come to terms with that.
     But the culmination of all of this was, I'm very close to fear, and I don't feel at all safe in the universe. I feel like it can come . it can come out after you at any time, at any moment. There's really no line at all between life and catastrophe. That's why, I guess, the horror in my books is so common.

WIATER: We know your novels are often as well-received by the critics as they are the public. But why should horror novels, or “novels about fear” to use your phrase, be considered in any way worthwhile as “literature”?
STRIEBER: What horror writing is about, in my opinion, is this journey through the netherworld. We all come from somewhere, and we're all going somewhere – and we don't know where. And we're all frightened. Everyone 6f us, in nightmares, has lived through this fear. Now, someone with a uniquely terrible series of experiences like I've had maybe has a special relationship with fear. But most people walking the street have had the Ultimate Fear. I certainly don't know anyone who can't look back on a nightmare, and even if it didn't make much sense, it still drew them to a level of ultimate terror. So we all know what it's about. We all know what the terror is.
     Horror novels are important because they help us deal with this. “Mainstream” novels are generally a type of moral fiction that are about the consciousness of everyday life. Horror novels are about the inner consciousness; about extending consciousness into the dark places of the soul. The novelist is a guide through the netherworld, and in a good horror novel, the reader is the hero of the journey. Not he main characters who are acted upon by the disasters. Stephen King, for example: his best characters are always his victims. When you read his books, you find yourself literally the hero of the story in the sense that he is guiding you from event to event, deeper and deeper into this netherworld.
     And guiding you out again, too. There are some sonofabitches who leave you dangling in the darkness; [laughs] people who really don't know what they're doing, or who are just out for a “kick.” The old “hack 'em and scare 'em” deal. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in horror fiction as a serious fictional form.

WIATER: Certainly WarDay deals very effectively with the Ultimate Fear facing all of mankind – annihilation by nuclear war.
STRIEBER: It takes the moment the farthest it's ever gone – I don't think there's ever been a horror novel as vitally connected to the issues and the reality of terror in our time. Horror fiction is uniquely capable of dealing with the real nightmares of this period; there isn't another form that is capable of doing it. If we're going to learn to be able to grapple consciously with these terrors, it's going to be through the medium of horror fiction.

WIATER: You once said that you don't consider your concept truly completed until it exists as both a book and a film.
STRIEBER: Yes, that's right. I don't write consciously that way, that's just the way it comes out of me, in such a way that the translation from novel into film is a very natural one. There's a film waiting to be made out of The Night Church. The only book I've ever written that doesn't necessarily have a film in it is Black Magic, and that was because I sort of went off on a spy tangent, and it's a little too complicated a plot. But there's a terrific movie in The Night Church.

WIATER: Then what did you think of the film versions of The Wolfen and The Hunger?
STRIEBER: They were both overblown; they were both done by people who thought the horror genre was simply a vehicle, and they were trying to do things that were more “important” than horror. In Wolfen, the director was interested in making a political statement. In The Hunger, the director was interested in making an “art” film. Someone who had been at a party in London told me that [director Tony] Scott had said, “The Hunger is not a horror film, it's an art film.” And I thought, “It's a bomb. It's doomed.” But if the directors had just been honest . . . it was the same way with the second version of Cat People, and Ghost Story was the same deal-the directors don't have any respect for the little man. Either the little man who made the pictures which are going to live forever, or the little man who watched them and went away feeling somehow a kind of catharsis in himself for having been there.

WIATER: Knowing your intense interest-and experience-in filmmaking, it must be frustrating to see what's become, or not become, of your work when it's adapted for the screen.
STRIEBER: You know, I'm not that interested in selling my novels to the studios right now. Primarily because so many books made into movies have failed in recent years. Most of Stephen King's have. And they've failed for a number of different reasons, not the least of which is they haven't been well done! If I strike up a relationship with the right film person, I will go back into making films of my work. But I'm just not going to sell them to the studios. I'm not interested in that anymore.

WIATER: Speaking of catharsis, is that what the process of writing horror is to you-a way of purging all the horror you've experienced in real life?
STRIEBER: Oh, definitely!!

WIATER: What's your writing schedule like?
STRIEBER: I use a word processor. I start work usually at eight-thirty in the morning and work until six, with a half hour off for lunch. I work five, maybe six days a week, maybe seven days a week depending on how intensive a schedule it is. While I'm writing one book, there's usually two or three other ideas I'm working on in the back of my mind. It takes me anywhere from a year to ten years for a book to gestate in my mind, but only about nine months a year to write it. By the time I'm writing it, the book's usually been written and rewritten ten times in my head! And then I usually go between three and ten drafts of a book.

WIATER: Considering how grim or at least grisly the subject matter of most of your work has been, what does give you satisfaction as a writer?
STRIEBER: The whole experience gives me satisfaction. Ultimately, the writing of the book, the successful reception of the book by readers, and the filming of the book-that's the whole process. But if the book doesn't sell, and the readers don't respond, then I feel like I've failed. Because the reader is as important as the writer in the creative mix. The reader is also a creator, a partner, and if you don't have a partnership, then you've failed somehow; you haven't done it right.
     I've always longed, naturally, for a bigger and bigger readership, and it is getting to be quite a big readership actually, but I always feel that there could have been another half million readers for a particular book. So I'm never satisfied with what I've got. I want more! [laughs] And it's up to me to get them. I'll get those readers, if I deserve them.

WIATER: Is that part of what drives you?
STRIEBER: My work is a great joy. I wouldn't be able to tell you exactly what it is that drives me, but I have lots of ideas. I have hundreds of ideas, and they're just stacked up in a holding pattern. I've got ten novel ideas that I really would like to do, and I can't get to them all! I write like a madman, I write as fast as I can, and I still can't get to them all. By the time I'm finished with one thing, I have five additional ideas, and then I'll have two more ideas, for a total of seven ideas.. .!

WIATER: Many of your fans have a special affection for your first novel The Wolfen. We understand you're considering a sequel?
STRIEBER: Yes. It'll be called Call of the Wolfen, though I'm not working on it right now.

WIATER: Tell us about your “young adult” novel called Wolf of Shadows. It's also gaining the attention in political circles that WarDay received in terms of its being taken as more than just another novel.
STRIEBER: Yes, it's doing quite well, though since it's a young adult novel it won't be a bestseller or anything. It's a little allegory about a nuclear war that is so severe that a “nuclear-winter” sets in. And it's about a pack of wolves and a young woman and her daughter, who achieve a symbiosis and begin to support one another to be able to survive. Allegorically, it's saying that we must reintroduce ourselves to nature. We are coming up against so many problems: excessive population growth in the world, use of resources spewing all sorts of things into the atmosphere, sitting on top of these huge arsenals, the probability that nuclear weapons will go into the Third World and into the hands of terrible, demented people very soon.
     To fix these things we've got to understand a lot more about ourselves than we do. WarDay and other such fictions are becoming essential to our survival. They're much more important than they were in the past. Because we're running out of time.

WIATER: If WarDay was intended as a direct warning to its adult readers regarding nuclear destruction, would ft be fair to say that Wolf of Shadows was meant as a parallel warning which children could easily grasp?
STRIEBER: Very definitely, yes.

WIATER: Traditional last question: what's next on the dark horizon of Whitley Strieber?
STRIEBER: Another novel, which will probably be out next spring. All I can say about it is I think of it as my big “breakthrough” novel. Much bigger a breakthrough to the horror genre than The Wolfen or The Hunger were. I'm very excited about it; I think it's the best thing I've ever done. I just finished it today. The title of it is The Wild. And it takes some of the oldest horror traditions, and it makes them into something completely new.

[Editor's Note: Since this interview, Strieber has decided to put The Wild aside. He explains: “I just felt it wasn't as good as I first thought it was, so I put it away.” He is currently at work on a nonfiction book, but, he says, “It's just too early to talk about that now.”]

Whitley Strieber: A Man for All Terrors
© 1986 Stanley Wiater. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by kind permission of Stanley Wiater.

Read Stanley Wiater's 1988 interview with Whitley Strieber by clicking here or visiting the Communion section of this website.