Into the Darkness with Robert Dunbar

August 20, 2011

Arts & Literature, Interviews

by Alex Mcdermott:

In the world of dark fiction, few names call up the shivers quite like Robert Dunbar. With his debut novel The Pines, he established his reputation for haunting, eerie tales that shouldn’t be read late at night! His most recent novel, Willy, is a psychological nightmarish look into evil and he just reissued his classic erotic horror short story collection Martyrs and Monsters. I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Mr. Dunbar to talk about what gives him the creeps!

Alex Mcdermott: You have been very critical of the current trends in the horror genre. Can you elaborate on your perspective of the market right now?

Robert Dunbar: Critical? Have I? Oh dear. People are always advising me to be more positive in interviews, but that’s not always easy. Or possible. Do you know the Edgar Allan Poe story where the lunatics turn out to be running the asylum? I think it’s called “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” It feels like that. Often. I mean, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have goons on the bus – there’s room for everyone – but do we have to let them drive? No, I’m not critical of the genre. I love the genre. What I decry is the veneration of mediocrity that’s been a stake through its heart.

AM: It was a huge struggle to get MARTYRS & MONSTERS out, yet it was critically acclaimed. Why is there this barrier between the industry and the readers that keeps great books from reaching the shelves?

RD: It really was a struggle. The original publisher scheduled and canceled its release five separate times that I’m aware of, finally preferring to forfeit the advance rather than to bring the book out. (Personally, I believe they bought the manuscript based on the impact my other books had made, without realizing the extent of the queer content in here. When they finally read it, they panicked.) Not good. And talk about bad press. Continuing concerns about who owned what rights very nearly suppressed MARTYRS & MONSTERS entirely, and none of the other genre houses would even look at it, despite my track record. Finally, I ended up working with the tiniest of micro-presses … and they proceeded to botch every single aspect of the process. What a nightmare! The book should have sunk out of sight without a ripple: I was prepared for it. But then the strangest thing happened. The reviews, all those incredible raves, they saved it. Review after review called it “a masterpiece” or a work of “genius.” What writer doesn’t want to hear this? All the nominations and interviews and profiles followed. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about this new paperback edition from Uninvited Books. Finally a version that’s done well! Plus it’s never been available as an eBook before, so a whole new group of readers will be discovering it. People can find out more by visiting Uninvited Books.

AM: There is an ongoing debate on the distinctions in the horror genre. How would you describe literary horror? How do you define your work?

RD: “Literary Horror” has become a sort of battle cry – for me at least. But what makes a work literary? Let’s think about this. Technical proficiency of course. (Sadly rare these days.) But that’s just the starting point. Other ingredients? Intelligence. Sophistication. Integrity. Vision and execution. All the qualities that won’t be apparent in the latest Zombie-Bigfoot opus, because the term “literary” describes a level of writing that aspires to do more than just appeal to the lowest common denominator. (Remember the goons on the bus?) And that remains the key – seriousness of intent, a desire to create work that will last, to create art. How tragic that so many people believe this a shockingly radical approach to the genre. Not very encouraging, is it? We so need to reinvent ourselves.

AM: WILLY is a haunting evolution from childhood to adulthood and both the child-voice and the adult-voice are equally powerful. Elaborate on this process. How did you capture the authenticity from child to man?


RD: Many critics focused on this aspect of WILLY, but I never get tired of hearing it. Thank you. This book is all about the voices. I’m not sure how to describe the process of channeling them except to say that it was hard work. Real writing always demands so much. You have to be willing to confront things deep within yourself that any normal person would have sense enough to avoid. I mean, we all put up barriers. We need to. But a writer has to be willing to strip away anything manipulative or evasive, anything false. Have you ever encountered a person who doesn’t understand what a novel is … or who can’t grasp the concept of fiction? You’ll get comments along the lines of “so you just make stuff up?” (If you slap these people, you’ll get into trouble. Trust me on this.) They’ll never comprehend that, no, making stuff up would be lying, not writing, whereas literature must be true on a higher level. Always. Each detail. Regardless of the plot. Every word. Every emotion. Absolutely honest. I swear this book almost killed me.

AM: When THE PINES was originally released, it was edited quite heavily. How did the new edition finally reach the public?

RD: THE PINES wasn’t edited so much as censored. Editing I could have lived with. The heroine was African-American and there was a gay subplot – unacceptable in the reactionary genre of the time apparently, as was all the intricately stylistic writing. The book was hacked to pieces. And the sequel THE SHORE almost didn’t see the light of day at all. But I had a champion. The well-known (and widely respect) novelist Greg F. Gifune was also an editor, and more than anyone else, he became responsible for finally getting a restored version of the book published. Immediately, critics were incredibly enthusiastic, turning the novel and the difficulties it faced into a sort of cause célèbre, and those reviews eventually led to mass-market distribution. After that, the ball just kept rolling. To this day, readers are passionate about THE PINES … and more than a few are still incredibly provoked by it. Am I wrong to be amused? Just wait till the final part of the trilogy comes out next year. All those gay currents beneath the surface? They erupt in a sort of queer tsunami.

AM: You do not shy away from erotic elements and gay themes in your work. How do you use these elements to shape your stories?

RD: We’re back to honesty here. Any artist needs passion (as well as discipline). This is too hard a life otherwise. What else would carry you through? I’m speaking of the characters’ passions as well as my own, of course, because I tend to write about people in extreme situations, experiencing intense emotions. They have desperate needs, desperate longings. The erotic, the emotional – that’s all part of it. A vital part. In my work anyway. For instance, the reviews for WILLY have been amazing. Critic after critic described it as the most powerful book they’ve ever read … yet none of them can seem to decide what the book is about. And I don’t mean the secret themes. I’m talking about the most basic story components. Is Willy a ghost? A vampire? Is the narrator delusional? (I kept most of the plot elements deliberately subtle and ambiguous, though the clues are all there if you look closely enough.) The one thing all the reviewers agreed about is the passion. Each of them understood that the book – at heart – is a love story between two boys in terrible danger. It’s a wonderful sign of progress that no one seems terribly upset about the gay romance, even if they are somewhat bewildered about the nature of the danger. The perils confronting the lovers in MARTYRS & MONSTERS are a lot more straightforward, just as the eroticism is considerably more intense.  But that’s a different kind of book.

AM: How has your work evolved over the years? How have the changes in the horror genre shaped your writing? Do you even classify yourself a horror writer?

RD: Good question. No, I don’t consider myself a horror writer any more than I consider myself a gay writer. I’m a writer. Period. You’d be amazed by the kind of outrage this remark has been known to incite.  (At my lectures, audiences have been known to turn into lynch mobs, though that might just be a natural response to my personality.) Do you understand what I mean? My beliefs, my desires, my artistic and personal goals, these all shape the kind of writer I am, naturally, just as they shape the kind of human being I am. If my work has evolved over the years – and I like to think it has – it’s because I’ve become more fiercely myself, less invested in pleasing others. I’ve worked hard at this. Curiously enough, as my writing has become more personal, my readership has grown. Go figure.

AM: I have noticed a few new authors in the horror genre who are garnering attention for the quality of their dark fiction. Is there anyone who has caught your eye?

RD: B.E. Scully. Cool lady. I’m quite impressed with her work. Has anyone else caught my eye? There are so many. Despite all the market forces that oppress originality, there’s been an incredible explosion of talent recently. Look at Laird Barron and Thomas Ligotti. Look at Andrew Davidson or Sarah Waters. Queer horror especially is on the threshold of a breakthrough. For instance, Lee Thomas is making a terrific impact, and Michael Rowe’s new book is getting great reviews. And have you read Jameson Currier or Andrew Wolter? How about Paul G. Bens? He’s extraordinary. This is a very exciting time.  Actually, something similarhappened in the arts during the last Great Depression. Oh dear. See? Now I’ve gone all negative again.


Robert Dunbar is a Featured Member of DarkMediaCity.  He can also be found at his website.

(All interviews are the exclusive property of DarkMedia, and may not be reproduced or shared without permission, excepting links to the interview.)

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