Greensboro horror writer reflects on the wampus and 9-11
Death is a place where the party’s just getting started. That’s the way Greensboro horror writer Stephen Mark Rainey sees it anyway.
He’s had the time of his life on the darker side of fiction. He admits being tormented by bad dreams since childhood, but still loves to spin nightmares out of his word processor. He’s written about everything from demons to vampires and giant lizard flicks.
In the latter category, he’s enjoyed both thrills and belly laughs. He took the big lizard genre seriously enough, though, to found the fanzine Japanese Giants as a teenager. Rainey is one of the few people you’ll find who insists his house really did shake the first time he watched the first Godzilla with Raymond Burr. (But more on that later.)
He’s written other kinds of stories in his time, but doesn’t mind being tagged as a mainly “scary” writer.
He’s even OK with being tapped for the inevitable seasonal piece for a certain month in the fall.
“Halloween is my favorite holiday,” he said. “I’m perfectly happy to be known as an author of scary stories. I love having that feather in my cap. I enjoy it both as a fan of scary stuff and as a writer.”
Longtime horror readers may remember him fondly for Deathrealm, the magazine he edited from 1987 through 1997. During the peak of the horror boom, the publication quickly made a national reputation for itself.
Deathrealm published many of the top writers in the field, including Joe R. Lansdale, Elizabeth Massie, Rex Miller, William F. Nolan, Jeffrey Osier, Tom Piccirilli and Manly Wade Wellman. Local literati, including Fred Chappell and William R. Trotter, made their way into its pages. The late Karl Edward Wagner, easily the most legendary editor of his time for his DAW Books Best Horror Stories of the Year anthologies, was a feature writer.
Go to the big box bookstores or Amazon, and you’ll find these writers abundantly represented. You can find plenty of Rainey’s own work as well, both his novels and anthologies he’s edited. He ended the magazine because it gobbled up too much of the time he needed for his writing.
“I’ve just moved on to the point in my career that I would rather focus on my own writing and my own stories than showcasing other people’s stories,” he said.
He’s penned 80 works of short fiction, as well as the novels The Lebo Coven and Balak, among others. He considered it a great rush when the copyright holders of the cult gothic TV soap “Dark Shadows” turned to him to write a novel extending the series of the late 1960s and early ’70s. He wrote Dark Shadows: Dreams of the Dark with Elizabeth Massie, a Bram Stoker Award winner. It was published by HarperCollins.
He has two novels coming soon. The Nightmare Frontier is about a Virginia town that disappears from the face of the earth. It’s a shocker with “a gloomy Appalachian setting, antagonists who might have watched Deliverance a few too many times and an otherworldly menace.” As far as the readers go, Rainey hopes they’ll see it as “just damn fun.”
Blue Devil Island is a World War II thriller. Although the novel contains a thread of ominous menace, Rainey believes it will appeal to those who like history, as well as enthusiasts of adventure tales.
“Ultimately, my fiction is about people, and I think most readers will be able to relate to my characters on some level,” he wrote in an email portion of this interview.
In the days of Bram Stoker, readers could get their fill of weird fiction by buying “penny dreadfuls” from street vendors. Amazon.com has brought back the tradition. It’s offering downloads of Rainey’s short story “Sky of Thunder, Island of Blood,” another World War II thriller, for a mere 49 cents.
“Amazon Shorts seems to be a neat outlet for short fiction – very inexpensive for the reader, and each story site contains links to the authors’ books, so it helps promote those as well,” Rainey said.
He put his editor’s cap back on for Evermore, an anthology of tales in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe. It gained advance praise from Publisher’s Weekly, which wrote “Of the several Poe-themed horror anthologies published in recent years, this volume comes closest to evoking the streak of morbid curiosity that was Poe’s unique contribution to weird fiction.”
Rainey particularly recommends Chappell’s “The White Cat,” a story he considers one of the finest examples of dark fantasy he’s read in years. In a tale Rainey calls “remarkably imaginative and very powerful,” Charlee Jacob’s “Night Writing” brings Poe into the 21st Century to witness 9-11.
Carrying literary giants like Poe into the modern world may seem a daunting task, but Poe’s nowhere near as heavy as the giant lizards of Japan. Rainey argues that not all the lizard flicks are high camp. The Beast from 40,000 Fathoms was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Ray Bradbury. The original Godzilla, made in 1954, had only one monster. It lacked that other giant creature, Raymond Burr. Just the same, though, it shook the streets. Rainey gives the moody black-and-white original high marks for its grim allegory of nuclear horrors.
The flip side are the popcorn favorites where the scaly critters kick-box their way through downtown Tokyo. Those, he says, are just good roll-in-the-dirt fun.
“I love giant monster movies whether they’re grim and allegorical, such as the original Japanese version of Godzilla, or a hysterical wrestling match between rubber-suited actors, such as King Kong vs. Godzilla. They’re equally engaging, just in different ways.”
And Rainey tells one of damnedest true-life tales you’ll ever hear about such a creature feature.
“Part of what got me was this: When I was a kid, I had just finished watching Godzilla – the American version, with the added scenes of Raymond Burr – when the house started shaking. At first, I thought it was thunder, but it got violent enough to make me think the sky was falling. Turns out it was the first earth tremor we’d had in the area for something like 150 years. The timing was too serendipitous, and to this day, I still equate Godzilla with the ground moving beneath my feet.”
Many of his best horror stories come from Rainey’s childhood. He remembers one of his youthful experiences as combining the best of two great American traditions – summer camp and adult mentors who intentionally scare the hell out of children.
“When I was a kid at summer camp, the counselors loved to tell horror stories, and they scared the living crap out of me. Particularly the tales about the wampus cat – a critter that haunted the western [North Carolina] mountains, abducted kids, and tore off their heads and put them on pikes in the woods.
“One of the counselors had this photo, which was supposedly the Wampus cat. It was just a big black blur – for all I know, maybe his pet cat tossed up in the air. But back then, it was evidence, man. It made you believe the critter might really be out there. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
While Rainey’s fiction is otherworldly, his real life is fairly normal. He has a wife Peggy and a daughter, Allison who lives in Gaithersburg, Md. He says his all-time favorite TV show is ” The Brady Bunch.”
Some critics have questioned whether real life horrors have made the traditional horror story obsolete for the 21st Century. And hasn’t everyone seen enough of it since 9-11? Rainey argues that the real-life version of horror has little to do with its fictional counterpart, leaving plenty of room for the genre to thrive.
He says, “The best horror addresses real-world fears in a colorful way; however, it’s one thing to see and deal with reality as we know it and to explore the emotions of horror in fiction. No matter how grounded in reality, no matter how meaningful and on what level, fiction is just that.
“You want to get a feel for the difference, go watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and then the video of the beheading of Eugene Armstrong in Iraq. In comparison, fictional horror is comfort food.”
For more on Rainey’s work, visit “The Realm of Stephen Mark Rainey” at http://home.triad.rr.com/smrainey.