Monday, August 3, 2020

Of Clowns and Cornfields: Josh Jabcuga Interviews Horror Author Adam Cesare

Josh Jabcuga returns to interview Adam Cesare about his upcoming book from HarperTeen, Clown in a Cornfield, the slasher genre, Rob Zombie, Nurse Sherri, and earning Clive Barker's seal of approval! 

Josh Jabcuga: Clive Barker provided an incredible blurb for your upcoming book Clown in a Cornfield (out August 25th from HarperTeen; pre-order the Hardcover, ebook, or audiobook here).

First off, congrats on the new book. The advance reviews have been amazing. And earning a stamp of approval from Clive Barker, it seems so fitting on many levels. 

People know the Clive Barker name from the Hellraiser and Candyman films, others from The Great and Secret Show, or Abarat, or all of the above. His work has appeared in many forms, spanning generations of fans, crossing genres. There are many points of entry to becoming a Clive Barker fan. It’s similar in some ways to the shape that your body of work is beginning to take. This year alone, you’ve got Clown in a Cornfield coming out, you scripted a 4-issue arc of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (from Boom! Studios/Archaia—available in a hardcover collection later this year), plus Dark Crystal fans can look forward to your work on Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal Bestiary: The Definitive Guide to the Creatures of Thra, which is being released in October. Readers may be familiar with your previous books like Tribesmen, Video Night, and The Con Season, too.

As someone who grew up reading Fango, or going to conventions, hanging out at Blockbuster, what did it mean for you on a personal level when you got that ringing endorsement from Clive Barker?

Adam Cesare: Ha! That’s a very flattering way to say I’m all over the place! Thank you!

But about that Barker advance praise: not to exaggerate, the circumstances around getting that news felt like I was in a movie.

My friends and I were driving down to Scares that Care Weekend in Virginia, and I had no idea that my editor at Harper had even reached out to Mr. Barker. Matt Serafini was driving, Scott Cole was there, along with our other friend Shaun, and I read the email from my editor “Hey, just got off the phone with Clive Barker. He read Clown and said [a longer version of the blurb that HarperTeen carved down to that one sentence to fit on the cover]” and my soul disassociated from my body for a second.

Then I read it again, out loud, and you know, we’re a compact SUV full of horror fans, so there was a lot of “no way!”s and high-fives and joyous swearing. Really a top tier life moment for me.

I’m Philly-based, and a couple months later Barker was signing at a convention in South Jersey. I knew I wanted to go meet him and get his autograph, but, since it was my editor who’d reached out, secured the blurb, I had no interaction with him, no idea if he’d even remember the book. I was a little nervous to say anything to him about it, but to my delight he not only remembered me and the book, but significantly held up his autograph line to ask me questions about it. He wanted to know “how I got away with some of that content” since the book’s marketed as YA (Young Adult) and I really didn’t know what to tell him, him being the literal master of “getting away with content.” As a fan who goes to conventions and readings, I’ve had a lot of incredible and positive interactions with some of my heroes, but I’ve never had someone be that generous with me.

Surreal stuff. An honor. And I’m sure I’m going to be using that quote until the day they put me in the ground.

Josh Jabcuga: In your own words, you’ve said, “Best to aim teenagers and higher with that one, I don’t need any angry letters.” Adam, when you’re writing a YA slasher like Clown in a Cornfield, how do you walk that fine line of not talking down to your audience, not neutering the work, inching up to the line but not crossing it... Or do you tip toe over the line and hope you’ve earned the trust of the reader by that point?

Adam Cesare: Ha. I don’t even remember saying that but… sounds about right. But I’m sure I said it to encourage people who aren’t big YA readers, and don’t really know that there’s a *wide* chasm between middle grade and YA. This is not a book that’d sit comfortably between Captain Underpants volumes. Teens are a hyper competent, hyper savvy audience. The book doesn’t talk down to them, which has the bonus effect of I think adults can enjoy this just as much as teens.

As far as “crossing a line,” is it a bad answer to say that I never even *considered* the line? At least while drafting?

I’ve read a ton of modern YA horror and I think there’s a real misconception among “adult-horror” readers what YA is and has been for decades. I use it as an example a lot, but I think if you look at Danielle Vega’s The Merciless, as far as frights and gore, YA can go toe-to-broken-toe with most contemporary adult horror fiction.

My approach was that I wrote the book that I would have wanted to read when I was in high school. And—for me and most horror fans I know—we were reading books shelved in the adult section during high school. So I figured the best way to approach the “Y” element of YA was more in thematics that’d speak to a younger audience and write the rest the way I’d write any of my other fiction.

Even saying that, I’m sure there’s going to be adults who’re scared off by the label. Hey, they’re missing out, what can I say? At the very least they should buy a copy for the young horror fans in their life. Maybe 2, in case they want to give it a try.

Josh Jabcuga: On your YouTube channel (Project: Black T-Shirt), you’re known for pairing movie recommendations with books that complement them. Without getting into spoiler territory, to set the tone, would you give us two or three movies that would complement Clown in a Cornfield?

Adam Cesare: Well, I can’t help myself so I’m going to do more than 2 or 3. But first, bear with me:

I did this kind of insane thing, while I was writing CiaC, where I tried to *only* watch slashers. And I was writing it for a while. And I generally watch a lot of movies anyway. Which meant I watched a lot of slashers.

What I was trying to do, beyond just feed my brain with “psychic mood music” was get a better understanding of the slasher’s general structure and what it is about that general story-type (“general” because there’s a ton of variation in the ~half century of slashers and proto-slashers) that I love.

Look I think Scream is amazing, one of my favorite movies, but its impact on the genre is a double-edged sword. The “rules” that Craven/Williamson have the characters present, in my opinion, put a stranglehold on how we talk about slashers. Snobs and general non-horror audiences look at those “rules” and are given a shorthand to dismiss the subgenre entirely (“ugh, it’s so repetitive and simplistic”) and horror fans who still love slashers try to apply these same rules retroactively and end up narrowing their view of what a slasher “has” to do.

So I think the best way to answer your question is to offer a range of movies that sit outside of the major franchises and show how far the slash can stretch:

First I’d say Alice, Sweet Alice. Some folks will want to label it a “proto-slasher” since it’s BH (Before Halloween, but after Black Christmas), but I think that’s not correct. And I think a lot of the urge to keep it out of the sub-genre is because it’s got a ton of thematic and psychological depth. But to me it’s the perfect example of “you can have brutal stabbings and bludgeonings and still be a capital-G Good movie.”

Going chronologically, I’d head to either Terror Train (1980, but it was shot in ’79) or Graduation Day (1981). Since both were shot before Friday the 13th Part 2, there’s a purity to their “Let’s chase Halloween” spirits that’s very telling. And the way both films choose to consciously chase Halloween is with a whodunit. Which Halloween is 100% not. I mark this down to a “we may be a dozen movies into this genre, but the market/hivemind hasn’t formalized how we make them, so we’ve still got one foot in the associated genre we understand better (mystery).”

Then I’d skip to the 90s, and choose Urban Legend. Which I almost read as a direct Scream reaction by a slasher fan (director Jamie Blanks). It’s almost an attempt to do a quick drywall fix over the broken 4th wall Scream left behind. Its “hook” (heh) is consciously going further back in its examination of the genre, saying “no, we’ve been telling each other these kinds of stories long before there was Jason or Michael. We’ve been telling them around campfires, in cave paintings, and the slasher’s placed somewhere on that continuum.” And then it still gets to have its meta-cake and eat it, with certain “for the fan” pieces of stunt-casting and indulgences (that aren’t too cloying).

Then I’d finish up with All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which I don’t read as a “back to basics” slasher, but do read as a “back to North America” slasher, because it’s coming in the wake of the French absolutely clowning the US and Canada at their own game (which we *maybe* borrowed from the Italians but w/e) with High Tension.

I feel like those 5 movies, spread exactly across 40 years, which all adhere (at least loosely) to the whodunit half of the slasher genre (there’s an entire other supernatural line of the family tree): it’s hard to look at how different they are stylistically and structurally and be like “yup, just silly movies about men and women with knives.”

Josh Jabcuga: Cereal at Midnight is known for celebrating and championing physical media. I know you’re a huge supporter and collector yourself. On your YouTube channel you often review the latest releases from Arrow or Vinegar Syndrome. Recently you covered the Al Adamson box set from Severin. That should shock no one who follows you on social media, because you talk up Nurse Sherri any chance you get. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if I hear that you and Matt Serafini are scripting a remake for Blumhouse. Kidding aside, what is one thing that surprised you about Al Adamson as you make your way through the massive set? Did it give you a new appreciation for him, a different perspective on his movies?

Adam Cesare: You have no idea how close that first part is to being true! Not with Matt (who I’ve co-written/optioned a couple of scripts), and it’s def not something Blumhouse wants to do, I imagine, but I am 100% serious when I tell you I’ve had multiple phone calls with the rights holder to Nurse Sherri. I’ve gotten as far as writing a little 2-3-page prospectus on how I’d approach a remake. I don’t think I’d go any further until someone who actually had a fighting chance of getting it made expressed interest.

I think, before the set, I’d kind of marked Adamson down as the version of Roger Corman that Roger Corman might produce. And I don’t mean that in any kind of negative or derisive way. Corman’s approach and body of work makes him my all-time movie hero. But on deeper (like really, really deep, when you’ve watched the same footage cut into a slightly different movie 3 times) inspection I think what Sam Sherman and Al Adamson had going was quite different. A kind of businessman meets outsider art bromance, a surrogate family/troupe of professionals brought together by ambition and (sometimes) tragedy.

I know movies like this are an acquired taste, but even for those who aren’t interested in these types of films I’d highly recommend David Gregory’s documentary about Adamson, Blood & Flesh. In an age where it seems like every film maker and movie is getting their own feature-length doc, I think this is one of the absolute best.

Josh Jabcuga: One day in passing, you and I discovered that we both attended the world premiere of The Devil’s Rejects in San Diego. Not only that, but you were sitting one row in front of me! This was many years ago, yet we’ve never met in person. One of these days, I’m sure. Anyway, the trilogy was recently completed with 3 From Hell. It’s been quite the road since that screening of The Devil’s Rejects. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask your thoughts on the trilogy now that it’s done. And is there a chance we could see Rob Zombie directing the film adaptation of Clown in a Cornfield?

Adam Cesare: Yes. To give a little more context, this was during Comic Con and Lionsgate was doing this promotion where if you were one of a number of people who lined up before dawn to get your face painted like Captain Spalding (pictured), they would give you a free ticket to the premiere. I was 17 and already an absolute con-artist, so I assumed (correctly) that I could skip the face paint and the line and just *ask* the first fan on the convention floor if they were using their plus one. First guy I asked said he wasn’t and gave it to me.

I was sharing an armrest with Brian Posehn until I got up to go to the bathroom and another fan took my seat (was it you? If so we should hash this out, 15 years later).

I am an *ardent* defender of Zombie’s cinematic output. That said, I went into 3 From Hell pretty trepidatious. 31, to me, felt like the kind of movie Rob Zombie’s detractors claim that Rob Zombie makes. And that shook my faith a bit. Especially knowing 3 From Hell was going to be working from a similarly reduced budget.

But I really enjoy it. It felt to me almost the opposite of 31, the Bizarro World version of that movie. Similar scale, similar cast, but intensely personal, almost autobiographical, where the moments of “fan service” feel (to me) like they’re fan critique. Rob Zombie’s 8 ½, in a way. I know not everyone shares that reading, but I’m fine with that. I’m confident in my tastes.

And him doing Clown in a Cornfield? I mean, selfishly, yes, of course I’d love to see that (and cash the resultant check). But, as a fan of his? He works best when he’s unencumbered by source material or audience expectation. My dream for the next Rob Zombie film is whatever it is he wants to make most.

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Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare is out August 25th from HarperTeen. For more info on Adam Cesare and his projects, visit https://adamcesare.wordpress.com/

 Since May 2019, Joshua Jabcuga has been a freelance digital content provider for All Elite Wrestling, which can be seen every Wednesday night on TNT. His adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale's novel Bubba Ho-Tep and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers for IDW Comics, was released last year. It is his third series for the publisher. In February he interviewed horror author Matt Serafini for Cereal at Midnight and has teamed with Heath for three audio commentaries for the site (Batman , John Carpenter’s They Live, and The Rocketeer).

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