Sugar Rush (July 2020)—Respected Genre Critic and Author Mark Sieber discusses his new collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-in with C@M’s Josh Jabcuga
(The following interview was conducted via email from June 15-26, 2020.)
Josh Jabcuga: Last year here at Cereal At Midnight I named your book, He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-in, as my personal favorite of 2019 (Click here to read Josh’s review). I said the book deserved to be ranked up there with The Psychotronic Video Guide to Film, Nightmare USA, and Paperbacks from Hell.
Whelp, here we are at the halfway point of 2020, and I've still got your book on my mind! I've been following your work for quite awhile actually, but for those who may not be familiar with you, would you mind telling readers a bit about yourself and He Who Types Between The Rows?
Mark Sieber: Thanks, Josh. I really appreciate this.
I've been a horror fan all my life. I've watched thousands of movies and I've read thousands of books in the genre. I had some success as a moderator of message boards. This was before the onslaught of social media. I was writing at the board for around eight years, and thought it was time to launch my own place.
I started Horror Drive-In in 2006. It was a website that would host a message board and an outlet for me to write reviews. Looking back, it was crazy. I was reading like a maniac, watching at least a movie a night, working a full time job, managing a busy message board, and somehow I found the time to write a whole bunch of reviews and essays. I was running on autopilot, and when I went back to see what I had done, I literally had no memory of writing a lot of it. It was stream of consciousness stuff. I was reviewing books and movies, commenting on the genre and the then-current trends, and putting myself and my life in the middle of it all.
The book is a collection of these pieces. I guess you could call them blog entries. I'd been doing them for a decade and I thought about putting together a book. I was editing them up, and fixing a lot of errors and clumsy writing. I had the book almost done, artwork and all, when Norman Prentiss, of Cemetery Dance Publications, offered to pick it up and publish it. I already had a longtime association with them, and it was a perfect fit.
Josh Jabcuga: Before we get too far ahead, I want to congratulate you on getting that offer from Cemetery Dance. For people unfamiliar with CD, let me just say that they are essentially a small press publisher (or boutique label, to steal a term from the Blu Ray and DVD collectors out there), but they're fairly prestigious. They've published a who's who in genre fiction (primarily horror), like Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Joe R. Lansdale, Brian Keene and Robert McCammon—to name a few. Clearly all your hard work and sacrifices over the years paid off: you have a name that insiders in this corner of the publishing world--from authors to die-hard genre fans—are familiar with, and now this collection of your essays and reviews, "blog entries" as you say, exists. Was there a point along the way where you noticed people were paying attention to your work, where you went from being "just another person" posting his reviews online to somebody who is an influencer in the genre? I don't see Cemetery Dance offering to publish anyone else who writes reviews on, say, GoodReads or Amazon, or on their own site.
Mark Sieber: Thanks. Cemetery Dance is the best. Always have been. There are a lot of horror publishers out there, but no one does it as well as CD. Their editorial decisions are right in line with my own tastes.
I was very well known in the genre before I started Horror Drive-In and formal reviewing. The 2000's decade was the era of message boards, and I ran the most popular ones in the field. The Gorezone Book Forum was huge, and Shocklines was even bigger. Everyone was there.
It was a much different world than it now is. Fans and pros were closer to each other, I think. It was a tighter knit community. The forums were 99% text based, so there wasn't all the posing. There was more substance.
I started Horror Drive-In, and the forum was popular for quite a while, but social media was taking over even then. People began switching over to Facebook, where they could block anyone who dared to disagree with their self-righteous political opinions. Many of the old users seemed to want to talk more about politics and current events than books and movies. I get that shit everywhere I go. I want my online experiences to be an oasis from all that misery.
A lot of people were reading my pieces for the first decade, then I think they began to drift away. It's hard to compete with podcasts, You Tube, binge watching and pretty pictures. Plus, I'm not exactly cute, I don't kiss ass or suck up. I truly believe that the critical process serves and supports the genre more than praising everything under the sun. Reviews should help writers learn and grow, not placate them. So I'm not the most popular reviewer out there.
I believe He Who Types Between the Rows is the only reviews book Cemetery Dance has published, but then I like to think it's more than just reviews. I comment on my life, on the genre, and on aspects of publishing and cinema. It's a good mix if I do say so myself.
Josh Jabcuga: With all you take in (and time being such a commodity), what are some of the factors that compel you to invest even more of your time reviewing a book, movie, audiobook, etc.? And with all the friendships you've formed over the years, and from being accessible online and at conventions, how do you maintain the objectivity in your writing?
Mark Sieber: I put my trust in a variety of sources.
Jason Cavallaro is a voracious reader and reviews for Horror Drive-In. We're close friends, and if he recommends something, I'll take it seriously. I admire the way Stephen King has maintained his passion and enthusiasm for reading. I don't always agree, but I listen closely to his recommendations. If not for King I may not ever have read Don Winslow, whose work I adore. If Tom Monteleone suggests a book or author, I can take it to the bank. Same with Richard Chizmar.
My wife has read a lot more mainstream books than genre materials, and I know she has good taste.
I sometimes take the major reviewers to heart. If a lot of them praise a book, and the plot sounds like something I will like, I may give it a whirl.
Other than that, I tend to trust my instincts, which usually pays off.
As for objectivity with my author friends, it's a tough balancing act. If I truly hate a book by a close friend, I may choose to not review it. Ditto if I really, really love one. People will think I am biased, and it would probably be true.
I've written somewhat negative reviews about books from friends. I know it must sting them a bit, but I have never gotten a lot of bad feedback. Most adult writers know it comes with the territory.
That said, I make a practice to never write pure hatchet jobs. I try to point out what I think works, and I make clear what does not work for me. Bearing in mind of course that others can and will have other opinions.
Josh Jabcuga: In the introduction, which you wrote almost one year ago, you describe the book as "a tour of the genre from 2006 to 2017."
If you and I were shooting the breeze over burgers and fries and I asked you for some of the highlights of that period, and a few of your favorite memories, what would you include?
Mark Sieber: Those were days of great and terrible things in my life. My then-marriage was in decline and it ended in 2009. Which wound up being the best thing that ever happened to me. I met the woman I should have always been with, Clara Hudson, in 2016. We were married in the following year.
It was a dream come true when Richard Chizmar asked me to become a columnist for Cemetery Dance Magazine. This was around 2008-2009. I got a rocky start, but it ended up all right. I've done almost twenty columns for the print magazine, and a lot more for Cemetery Dance Online. I'm particularly fond of my series of reviews on older books called Dead Trees.
I knew Andy Monge before I started Horror Drive-In, but our friendship bloomed after I began the website. He and I published a number of short stories for HD-I, with original fiction from Bill Pronzini, Harry Shannon, Ronald Malfi, John Skipp, Al Sarrantonio, Elizabeth Massie, and others. The Shannon piece was a Stoker finalist, and a couple of others made Ellen Datlow's Honorable Mention list. That was a great experience, but with us paying pro rates with no financial return, we could not keep it up.
Falling back in love with the work of Stephen King was a huge highlight. I adored his earlier books, but after the publication of It his fiction didn't work as well for me. I liked some, hated a couple, and felt ambivalent about quite a few books. I never did enjoy the Dark Tower stuff, and it permeated his writing for a long time. But with Duma Key I began loving everything again.
The best parts of all of this crazy madness has always been meeting and developing friendships with other horror fans. The Scares That Care Weekend shows have been enormously rewarding in that regard. I was deeply depressed that this year's show was cancelled, but I understand the motivation behind the decision.
Then there are the times I get feedback on a review or column from someone who was moved by what I wrote. It hasn't happened a lot, but when it does it makes all the effort I've put into this stuff worthwhile.
Mark Sieber: Oh, definitely. Collectors are a different sort of creature than your average person. We crave physical objects and consider them works of art. Whenever I go into someone's house for the first time, the first thing I do is look at the books and movies on the shelves. These things speak of an individual's taste, and I learn more about them by what they read and watch than I do from initial conversations.
People still display stuff, but not as much. It's all disposable now. Books used to have value, and when you would give someone a gift of one, it meant something. Now everyone has a Kindle full of books that mostly won't be read. You can't give books away for review. I get requests almost daily from "indie authors" wanting their stuff looked at. Hell, I can't even find real reviewers for my book, and it is a Cemetery Dance Publication. We all have too much of everything.
A big part of the fun was the thrill of the hunt. Going to the bookstore and wondering what might be there on the shelves. Back in the pre-internet days I rarely knew when something was coming out. Now the mystery is gone. I remember once at the Horror Drive-in board, I was hinting about an upcoming release, hoping to build a little anticipation and speculation. A few people got really pissed and demanded to know what I was talking about. People are so greedy about that sort of thing now.
No one will ever convince me that having everything at our fingertips has made us a healthier or happier society.
Josh Jabcuga: Many casual horror readers enjoy Stephen King's work but don't know where to go beyond that. Your book is a wonderful resource if people would like a crash course on the genre, since you did all the heavy lifting for them. In the book you discuss modern genre writers such as Brian Keene, Joe Hill, and Jonathan Janz, to name a few. Daniel Kraus is an author who seems to get a lot of praise at your site. What is it about his work that has captured, and kept, your attention? Is he your favorite of this current crop of writers from the past 10-15 years?
Mark Sieber: Kraus is amazing, one of the best writers working today. For one, the man *can* write, and damned well. Plus he has an incredibly fertile imagination. his work is a hell of a lot more original than almost all the other genre writers today. He has done young adult horror, but thankfully has avoided the It/Stranger Things cliches so many are indulging in right now. His Hard Case Crime novel, Blood Sugar, doesn't run the gamut of noir trappings, and is absolutely bugf**k. He is all over the map, sort of like Joe R. Lansdale has done with his career. As any horror fan should know, Kraus completed a George Romero zombie novel, and it is stunning. No one could have done it better.
But my favorite? Maybe not. There are quite a few I like a lot right now. I simply adore the novels of Grady Hendrix, and The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires is perfect. His nonfiction book, Paperbacks From Hell, maybe not so much. It largely celebrates the worst the genre had to offer over the years. Kind of like if Pauly Shore had done a study of horror fiction. But the novels? Woo boy, they are fantastic.
I also really like Benjamin Percy, a comics writer who has written some spectacular horror novels. What other horror writer can boast that JOHN IRVING blurbed one of his books? Irving did so with Red Moon, an epic werewolf apocalypse novel.
But I believe the best new writer I've read is Dan Chaon. The guy is just staggering. His latest novel, Ill Will is one of the scariest books I have ever read, and I honestly don't believe I've ever read a better suspense novel. No shit.
Josh Jabcuga: I'm a Romero guy...partially because where I live isn't all that far from where he shot many of his films. The settings and landscape in his films always felt familiar to me, which made them scarier. So the Kraus/Romero zombie novel has been at the top of my "want list" since the moment it was announced. And speaking of Romero, it should be clear by now to anyone seeing this that you're extremely well read, but you're also very well versed in genre films. It's no coincidence that you received a blurb from Joe Bob Briggs, one that is very well deserved in my opinion. There's a nice, rather amusing piece in your book about the time you met Ruggero Deodato. I'm not going to spoil it for anyone, but if anyone ever doubts your "grindhouse cred," you can point them to that story and Deodato's reaction to your comments about a particular film of his. I'd love to hear your thoughts about the current scene and the latest crop of horror directors.
Mark Sieber: My life is different now than it was when I wrote the pieces in the book. My job is more demanding, and my commute is more arduous. I'm in a new marriage. Time is a much more precious commodity than it ever has been in my life. I used to watch a movie a night, now I rarely have time. I'm reading more, and while I miss my movie obsession, I am happy with the situation.
I did watch Hereditary, and I loved it. Loved it. I can see why some got bored, but I really liked the pace of the movie. I still haven't watched Midsommar.
I saw Dr. Sleep. Flanagan is good, but I was mostly disappointed this time. I liked it well enough until they went back to the Overlook, at which point the movie went down the toilet and became ridiculous. People in the horror community adored Dr. Sleep, but I can't figure out why. It Part 2 was better, but I can't say that I loved it either.
The new Halloween? Eh. Watchable, forgettable.
I get over to see my old drive-in buddy a few times a month, and we watch a movie or two. Our last feature was Curtis Harrington's Ruby. We've revisited classic and not-so-classics like Psychic Killer, Mountaintop Motel Massacre, Stand Alone, Hot Dog: The Movie.
To be honest I'm not fond of the new digital look of movies, and I'm not about to sit through the big, loud, bombastic things that look like they were made on a computer. I remember when the old folks would say how much 80's movies sucked, and how I laughed at them. Now I've become the sour old guy.
For more on Mark Sieber, visit his website: www.horrordrive-in.com
He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-in by Mark Sieber can be purchased directly from Cemetery Dance or from Amazon.
Joshua Jabcuga adapted Joe R. Lansdale's novel Bubba Ho-Tep and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers for IDW Comics, which was released in 2019. 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). He is also a freelance journalist for All Elite Wrestling, which can be seen every Wednesday night on TNT.