Greg F. Gifune is the author of numerous novels, including Gardens Of Night, Catching Hell, Long After Dark, The Living And The Dead, Judas Goat and Saying Uncle. His work has been consistently praised by critics and readers alike and has been translated into several languages and published all over the world.
Robert Dunbar: How weird is this? As writers, we’ve both been interviewed many times. Since launching Uninvited Books a few months ago, I’ve been doing a whole new series of interviews about that process. How’s this for a twist? Now I get to interview YOU. (Just when you think there are no new experiences!) For our purposes here at Hellnotes, we should probably try to behave as though we’re not old friends and colleagues (and long used to finishing each other’s sentences). What do you think? Ready? Here goes.
With your talent, you could be writing anything. Why horror?
Greg F. Gifune: Thank you. I never set out to be a horror writer specifically, and really just consider myself a writer. While the horror genre was the first to recognize my work and accept it (and it’s where I’ve had the majority of my success), I’ve always been on the fringe of the genre in many ways, both professionally and personally. But that’s nothing new for me. I tend to live my life that way to a certain degree as well. I’ve always marched to my own beat and rarely belong to groups or would be described as a follower. Establishment I’m not. Still, I love the genre, have a great deal of respect for it and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
That said, while a lot of my work is considered horror, it’s also often considered fiction that just happens to be dark. I think that’s why my novels tend to appeal to readers outside the genre as well. A lot of my fans are horror readers, but many are readers with virtually no interest in ‘horror’ per se, but they like dark existential fiction and find that in my novels. Hopefully that brings some new readers to the genre, but also helps to let people outside the genre realize that horror is actually a very diverse genre that can appeal to a wide range of tastes.
At the end of the day I just write what I feel I need or want to write and whatever category that falls into or whoever it appeals to, great. Rather than labels, I focus on producing the best work I can and let the rest fall where it may.
Rob: Yet there’s an undeniable stigma attached to the genre. What do you think that stems from?
Greg: Frankly, I think the genre (as a whole) often gets a bad rap. There are certain types in the literary world who love to look down on horror and consider it the ghetto of literature. While unfortunately their ghetto references aren’t always entirely inaccurate, what you’ll find is that very few of those types have even read any horror (classic or otherwise) because, you know, it’s so beneath them. But I find those types impossible to take seriously. How can one have an opinion on something of any value if one has virtually no knowledge of the topic?
The problem is that segments of the horror community ask for this kind of treatment from outside the genre because of the way they often behave. The horror community can be a very insular crowd, and there are a lot of cons to that. The absurd politics of the genre don’t help either, and the fact that standards sometimes seem to be nonexistent just makes it worse and gives fuel to those types who claim it shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Then you’ve got organizations and a hierarchy that tend to be more about ego and self-serving foolishness than anything truly helpful to the genre, its writers or even its readers. I mean, there are actually people working in the genre (and some of them quite accomplished at least in terms of publishing credits) who object to and demonize the word “literary” for example. But, you know, don’t rock the boat because if you do you might not get to be part of the gang.
I guess for me, I never really cared about being part of the gang (in horror or anywhere else). For many people those circles and what they have to offer are the be-all and end-all. Cool, knock yourself out. But it’s not my thing. And the whole “well if you want to change it then get involved yourself and do something about it” stuff doesn’t fly with me either. I’m a writer, not a politician. I have no desire to be part of the prom committee. Call me crazy, but I think writers should, you know, write, and strive for change through their art. So I simply try to produce the best work I can.
Like any genre, there are many great writers and amazing pieces of work being produced in horror, but (again, like any genre) there’s also an enormous amount of questionable material from people who can’t even write at a professional level and have no business being propped up and presented to those outside (and/or inside) the genre as if they can. These challenges exist for all genres, of course, but the problem in horror specifically is that there’s rarely any distinction between the two, and that’s what hurts us outside the genre with readers who have no horse in the race and don’t care about the politics. They just want to read quality work, it’s really that simple.
Personally, I think horror is a wide and wonderful genre, with a great history and some of the most creative, exciting and brilliant minds in the business producing work that runs the gamut from great literary masterpieces to pure balls-to-the-wall entertainment and everything in between. And (in varying degrees, of course) I love (nearly) all of it and believe there’s room (and should be room) for all of it. As for the stigma, if the genre truly wants more respect, earn it. My philosophy has always been to never take myself too seriously but always take the work very seriously.
Rob: So … does it bother you when people call you a horror writer?
Greg: Not at all. I do prefer simply being called a writer because I don’t believe my work is solely genre based, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong or shameful or low-rent about writing horror at all (or at least there shouldn’t be). Some of the great classics are horror-based, and many great literary minds have worked (and continue to work) in the genre.
Rob: Will you ever abandon the genre, do you think?
Greg: No, I love the genre, don’t see that happening. Besides, because my work allows me to exist within and outside the genre at the same time, there’s no reason to. Long as I can continue to grow as an artist, write what I want and need to write (whatever category that may or may not fall into, I’ll let other people decide) and reach as many people as possible, I’m happy.
Rob: What on the horror scene makes you furious?
Greg: The political hypocrisy and insular nature of the genre that often (not always but often) permeates things. People who are in the business (or want to be) only for attention or to feel important or relevant and play celebrity and trade votes for awards they think might somehow legitimize them (and sadly, in some cases, at least within the genre, do). People who haven’t paid their dues and taken the time to hone their craft and really learn how to write (which is an ongoing process by the way, regardless of resume), yet feel they should be treated as if they have.
And I’d also have to go with the whole Mash-Up thing. I cannot express the degree to which I detest this stuff. Far as I’m concerned it’s nothing but vandalism. The fact that certain publishers would publish it isn’t surprising (this is a business after all, they publish what they think will sell), but how any writer could so disrespect and desecrate the work of another writer, particularly someone dead and unable to defend their work, is beyond me. And then of course there’s the fact that many of the works being desecrated are classics makes the entire thing even more repellent. It is one thing to re-imagine a theme (I did that with my novel Children of Chaos, which in many ways is a re-imagining of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and another to simply take someone’s literal work and turn it into something the original author never intended it to be. Come on.
Rob: What do you see as a ray of hope?
Greg: Long as they keep making vodka, there’s hope. That, and I believe the genre (particularly on the independent publishing scene) still leads the way in getting a lot of cutting edge work out there by new and exciting and different writers who might otherwise never get that shot. That’s what keeps things alive and vibrant and evolving. Many independent publishers (particularly those in the horror genre) understand that and support it, like what you’re doing with Uninvited Books, for instance, in trying to offer more literary horror and bringing new readers to the genre and beyond. I think that’s very important and I’m thrilled to have my novel Gardens Of Night be part of such an exciting new company.
Many other indi publishers in the genre have been striving to bring quality as well. Shane Staley at Delirium has been doing that for years. Rich Chizmar at Cemetery Dance is another. And there are several others publishing quality material as well. That gives me a great deal of hope. The genre has some amazing independent publishers out there right now, and a lot of great writers working for them, both established and new.
Rob: Who do you write for?
Greg: You mean besides the mortgage company? If I’m honest, I write for myself first, and then for readers. The readers are of course vitally important, but it begins internally, as something I need to purge or explore.
Rob: You’ve been so prolific, and many readers and reviewers have found your books to be profound and significant, as well as terrifying. Obviously, I’m a huge admirer of your latest work – Gardens Of Night. Could you share some insight about what that novel means to you and why you chose to address these very dark themes this way?
Greg: Gardens means a great deal to me, as all my novels do, and like most of my novels it’s also a very personal piece. While it examines several themes I’ve examined before in other novels, this time it’s from an entirely different perspective and in a very different way.
Like most people, I suppose, I’ve had some wonderful times in my life and also some hideously dark times. When it comes to such things in my life they always seem to be rather operatic in scale (maybe because I’m Italian, who knows?), so for me, Gardens was a way to explore and purge a particularly difficult time I’d had at one point in my life where I felt as if everything was literally imploding.
The novel began with the idea of a man’s life falling to pieces, and it seemed to me that these things rarely happen in a void. While what happened in my life was not by any means literally what happens in the novel, when I was going through this dark time it still seemed like an attack to me – because, in essence, that’s what it was – my life was literally being stolen from me, torn from me and destroyed right before my eyes by some force which was, at least from my perspective, evil. It was an act of aggression, of wholly unprovoked violence, really, and so my reaction at that time (right or wrong) was to defend myself and my life with a fight-fire-with-fire approach.
The concept of this led me to Gardens. I needed a metaphor that would convey that sense of despair and pain but also the horribly frightening concept of having absolutely no control over your own life or the things that happen in it. Enter the Three Fates, all of whom play a part in the novel. The horrible event that happens to the lead characters Marc and Brooke represents the destruction of their lives, but of course the attack they undergo is (like the mythology in the novel), a metaphor for larger themes of life, death, sanity, love, hate, pain, suffering, forgiveness and ultimately, survival and self-sacrifice.
Taking the concept to the next logical step, I wondered how such horrible events would change one’s view of the world and their place in it, the very ways in which one experienced self and existence (which I used in the novel as Marc experiencing communications from nature and the universe). That became the real theme of the novel, the result of this violence, of this life in shambles, and what it meant for everyone when those experiencing it came out the other side. Because, clearly, some would survive these things and some would not.
When I wrote Gardens I left certain aspects open to interpretation in some ways, because for it to be really effective I felt each reader had to bring some of his or her own conclusions to the table when all was said and done, thereby making it more personal and powerful for the reader. Gardens Of Night has been described as a cerebral, thought-provoking, very disturbing novel, and I think that’s accurate, but I also tried to write it as a solid (existential) horror thriller as well, so it could (hopefully) be enjoyed on that level too. And I think in the end there’s hope, redemption, and ultimately, transcendence.
Rob: One last question I have to ask. Do you have a specific artistic direction for the future?
Greg: Up and to the left. No, just continuing to do what I do to the best of my ability. I don’t force myself in any direction or even purposely head in one. Instead I try to let my process happen naturally and see where it takes me. There’s a lot more I want to explore with my writing, a lot more I want to purge, plenty of demons left to slay. I have numerous projects coming up and that I’m working on now, so my plate is quite full (thankfully). Hopefully whatever directions I go in, my fan base will continue to grow all over the world and readers will continue to want to listen to the stories I have to tell them.
Learn more about Gifune’s work here: Greg F. Gifune
Robert Dunbar is the author of several books, including Martyrs & Monsters and Willy. He is also the publisher of Uninvited Books, a new independent press dedicated to restoring the mantle of literary distinction to dark fiction. Find out more at Uninvited Books