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Douglas Clegg: Serial Chiller
By Scott Nicholson

Douglas Clegg is one of the last big-time novelists who stands unabashedly under the "horror" banner. Not only has he been one of the genre's leading success stories in the 1990's, he's now a leader in another field: using the Internet to deliver fiction to readers. Both the publishing press and the web industry press took note of his free NAOMI e-serial in the summer of 1999, an idea which may have seemed ahead of its time, but to Clegg, it was simply the right time.

SN: Your Internet publishing efforts are revolutionary, especially for an established author. Why did you decide to write NAOMI as an e-serial?

Clegg: I wrote NAOMI in the serial format for email because I really love serial novels -- and I wish newspapers and magazines would return to them. I think it would be a great draw for a newspaper to have this kind of entertainment, and weekly magazines like Time or Newsweek could really get some steam from it. It's a way to read books on the train, or in a waiting room, without feeling one has an enormous time commitment to the book if one doesn't like it. So, with a serial novel, both the novelist and reader are tricking each other -- daring each other -- to read the next installment. When you buy a book, you've made a significant commitment to that book. If you hate it by the third chapter, you're going to feel duped by the author. But a serial novel doesn't ask for that big commitment -- it allows the reader to stop reading if the writer hasn't done his job well enough, with no loss to the reader. I also wanted to try to establish a model for other writers to seek sponsorships in order to give free fiction to the e-masses, basically. So, I managed to get paid decently to give away a book. And it was a fun way to write one.

SN: Did the success of that project lead to NIGHTMARE HOUSE, or had youalready decided to continue with the form?

Clegg: NIGHTMARE HOUSE really came about because of MISCHIEF, a novel of mine that comes out in the summer (hardcover) and fall (paperback) of 2000. MISCHIEF is set at this small prep school in the Hudson Valley. In creating a haunted house for MISCHIEF, I wanted to draw from what I knew about haunted houses, basically. So I set to work creating a house that is so haunted that it reaches back to a few of the great horrific events of mankind, basically.

How can a house do that?

Well, if you see those few castles in New York and Virginia where multigazillionaires of the early 20th century brought over these ancient places stone-by-stone to satisfy some ego issues, then yep, there's a way to connect a house in America back a thousand years if you want. Then, I thought: wait, this house needs more mythology. The idea for NIGHTMARE HOUSE grew from a small part of MISCHIEF. MISCHIEF takes place in the near-present day at this school that was once a rich man's manor house -- complete with ruined abbey in back and something else within the walls of the house. But another story of the same house, called Harrow, happens in the 1920s -- a major love story turned terror tale which is going to become NIGHTMARE HOUSE.

I want to write a third book about the house, set at another time period, too. A trilogy about a haunted house -- I kind of like the idea of that. Setting, for me, has always been about character -- and the character of this house just takes over. So, when I knew I had to write NIGHTMARE HOUSE, I figured: ok, let's make it the next email serial novel.

SN: Do you find yourself writing differently for the serials than for a paperbook?

Clegg: No. I expected to feel that my writing would not be as good, or not have as much breadth, but I found it to be just as flawed as anything I write. If I could write all my fiction in serial form, I think I'd be happy. On the other hand, I do enjoy revising these novels.

SN: You've proven that e-publishing can be profitable. Do you think the large publishing houses are going to pay more attention to what's happening on theWeb?

Clegg: Actually, large publishers have been paying attention to this for awhile -- they've just been terrified about the implications. Most are excited about it. I know a decent number of people in the publishing and bookselling business, and I've met few who weren't becoming enlivened by the possibilities that electronic publishing can create.

SN: What about the health of the horror genre? Is it back, or just walking wounded?

A genre is only as good as its worst books, its best editors, and its best readers. I think the genre is definitely healthy because there are fewer horror novels published now. Because there's an editor like Don D'Auria at Leisure, and a couple of editors at Tor, still devoted to horror as an important literature. I have editor-friends at other houses who tell me they can't wait until horror comes back a bit more, because they actually like the genre.

Is it back?

I've never believed it went anywhere. I think it was just overpublished at a time when book prices were skyrocketing, profits in publishing were low, and too many writers were feeling that a fast buck could be made writing horror. And frankly, I think that whole '80s splatterpunk was to horror fiction what nouvelle cuisine was to cooking: interesting, even beautiful at times, but
not exactly what anyone thought they were ordering.

Right now, I find books at every single house that are solidly classified as horror -- just not this four-books-a-month mentality that was in mass market publishing in the '80s. Since I really didn't publish in the '80s (my first novel came out six months shy of 1990) I can't comment that much about this. I wasn't at that party. I came into this in the '90s, and was lucky to have 10 books published in mass market without really feeling all that much of the supposed death of horror. I never feel hurt by rejection -- I just move forward, readers have increased over the past ten years for my fiction, and I think this is a natural progression. I never depended on the health of the genre to make my fiction work. And I feel I've only just finished cutting my teeth and getting out of diapers -- it's the 21st century that I intend to master with my fiction.

Most of the horror writers who are considered mainstays now were writing and publishing in the '60s and '70s when they began -- if you don't believe me, go to the Cons and see who people are trying to emulate. Richard Matheson is having a much-deserved renaissance right now. He didn't begin in 1990. I was about nine or ten when I first discovered his novels. King was about -- what -- '77 or so? Koontz has been writing since the early '70s -- and all this makes Anne Rice seem like she's one of the new kids on the block. Those guys paid their dues, they struggled with their fiction, and none of them worried about the genre of horror while they wrote (I would guess.) Yet each of them created different aspects of the genre.

I really feel like I've barely got going with this genre -- which is why when I read blurbage somehow referring to me as someone who is master of horror or something, I have to laugh. I'm just shrugging off my apprenticeship now.

One funny aside: seems to me that one reason that my fiction seems to be getting a lot of attention right now is that I'm one of the few mass market novelists willing to say to Time magazine or to you, that I do, indeed, write horror fiction. I'm not going to pretend that what I write is anything else, although I have to admit NIGHTMARE HOUSE seems to be developing a romantic edge, too -- which is what I want. I mean, has there been a really good haunted house love story?

SN: What projects do you have coming out after NIGHTMARE HOUSE?

Clegg: Ah, too many. But lest someone think I write fast, please bear in mind that the working out of these stories has basically taken years. I wrote my first novel GOAT DANCE after thinking about that story for five years. It wrote itself in a couple of months, but I had to go through those five years of figuring the whole thing out before I could write much. YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU is out now -- I've worked on that sucker for 12 years. It began life as a short story and then mushroom-clouded to nearly 2,000 pages. Over the past decade, I've basically cut at it like kudzu in a bloodrose garden, and I can barely look at a page of it without remembering the 20 pages that got cut around that page.

Writing a novel is like being in prison, and that novel kept me in its prison for as long as I've been writing fiction. Part of me was always living there, and if you ask friends about this, you'd find out that they all saw me go crazy over that story -- and not in a healthy way. I was up nights, I was fighting with editors past, I was pretty much bleeding over the pages -- and I would not say that lightly, because I know it sounds arrogant. By the time this interview is published, I guess the verdict will be in. I broke a lot of rules that horror readers are used to with that novel -- and so I really don't expect horror fans to love it. Yet, it's solidly a horror novel. I'm so used to some of the negative fan mail telling me that my books are too hard to read, that my structures are not about linear, chronological time sequences -- and I have to respond, damn, maybe they're right. But I can't write a novel that bores me, that isn't interesting for me. I need those challenges of time, space, and mind as well as story. Well, okay, I wrote one that was linear : BAD KARMA.

YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU and MISCHIEF are out in both limited edition hardcover and mass market paperback formats in the year 2000, as well as the trade hardcover of NAOMI, which comes from Subterranean Press. Cemetery Dance is doing the other hardcovers. I love both those publishers -- they create beautiful books and they really know this business. Then, in 2001, the paperback of NAOMI comes out, as does the hardcover of NIGHTMARE HOUSE -- and I hope I have at least one other novel out that year. I have been working on a couple of novels over the past year or so, and they aren't quite to the explosion point, but as I said, I'm hoping one of them will be ready for publication in late 2001.

-copyright 2000 by Scott Nicholson

For more on Douglas Clegg or Nightmare House, visit his home site

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