Interview with Ellen Datlow: Queen of Horror, Master Editor
Thank you Ellen for taking the time to answer my questions. As an author who reads your Best Horror of the Year anthologies religiously, as well as teaches out of them each year in my Advanced Creative Writing Workshops, I am dying to pick your brain a little about your process, aesthetic, and experience in the industry. I really appreciate your time.
QUESTION ONE: What is your process like for Best Horror of the Year? I know you read the big name magazines, and then get all of the top anthologies sent to you, the obvious projects on your radar, but do you have any help with pre-screening stories, or looking outside of the genre (horror) into fantasy and science fiction, for example? And how do you start whittling the work down to your long-list, short-list and final TOC. That’s a daunting task. Must be hundreds of stories a year, if not thousands.
ANSWER ONE: Yes, it’s hundreds of stories. As I read during the year, I create a “recommended” list and if there’s a story I really like, I’ll put an asterisk by the title/author and ask the publisher to send me a word doc file of the story so I can keep it in a separate email folder labeled “considering.”
With regard to where I find the stories, I attempt to keep track of all venues that might publish horror or very dark fiction and request copies of magazines, literary journals, anthologies, collections, and novellas/chapbooks (plus appropriate nonfiction titles). I currently have two readers who help me sift through the material I think unlikely to contain much horror. One reads online/e-zines not specifically geared toward horror. And the other reads print magazines/anthologies that don’t look like they contain dark material. They suggest stories that they judge to be horror or very dark fantasy so I can check them out.
Once in a while (mostly because it’s a story I originally published, I’ll know immediately that I’m going to take a story, so I’ll send out the contract and move the story into my “story” folder, adding it to my Table of Contents.
But usually, I’ll begin rereading the stories I’ve noted toward the end of the year. I know how many words I have to work with—I usually begin the rereading process with twice the word count I’m allowed and read/reread each story until I whittle my choices down to my word limit.
QUESTION TWO: What is it about a story that gets it INTO the anthology? I assume some combination of your personal aesthetic (what you like), innovation, actual emotional reaction/s (horror, terror, tension, disgust, etc.), fresh POV, new settings, different myths, etc.
ANSWER TWO: First, I rely on my initial reaction to the story, and second, whether the story continues to have an impact on me when I reread it.
But basically all of what you mention play a part: plot, character, theme, setting, tone—plus, the storytelling must at the very least provide me with a sense of unease, and more often—a sense of dread. Not fear—I’m rarely if ever “frightened” while reading fiction. But most of the stories that end up in the anthology have stuck in my brain after having read them several times.
QUESTION THREE: Likewise, what is it about a story that will turn it into an immediate, or quick no or pass? Again, I’d assume such things as you’ve seen it done before (a lot, and better), an abundance of themes that year (or in general), no emotional reaction, slow pace or dry content, clichés and tropes, etc.
ANSWER THREE: If, as I begin reading a story, the writing is dull or a poorly constructed sentence stops me dead, I’ll probably put down the story immediately. I hate being bored while reading. Horror stories that begin in the middle of a scene are usually thin and obvious, and rarely actual stories, more like bad vignettes. Those are the quick passes.
The slower ones are when there’s no emotional resonance for me, clichés yeah—tropes (aren’t the same—naughty ;-)). Certain types of plots have to work very hard to keep me reading without cursing. An ending one can see coming a mile away (which is not the same as inevitability).
QUESTION FOUR: I’ve edited four anthologies to date, and I know that every time I start a new project (where I invite in, vs. open submissions) I do have a short list of authors I think of immediately. I mean, if I can get new work from Stephen Graham Jones, or Brian Evenson, that’s something I always want to do. So when it comes to Best Horror or other projects, how do you balance that love of certain voices with just wanting to put together an excellent anthology? I can’t disagree with recent issues that had two from an author, as they were both excellent. I guess sometimes an author just has a great year? Cream rises to the top?
ANSWER FOUR: For the Best Horror, I’ll make sure I see all the stories published by my favorite writers in a given year, and hope that I love one enough to take for the anthology. But if I don’t, then perhaps the next year I will.
For original anthologies it’s different. I’ve published so many writers that I obviously can’t buy everything they write. When editing a theme anthology I try to decide which of my writers might be interested in the theme. I also encourage some newer writers whose stories I’ve read and enjoyed to submit—and writers who I’ve published in my bests of the year to see if they can write to a theme.
QUESTION FIVE: What’s also encouraging is that while I do see a lot of familiar names in the Best Horror of the Year (and your other anthologies) I do see quite a few new names every year as well. Just in looking at the most recent Best Horror, (Nine) there were so many new finalists—some I recognized, some that I didn’t. Is this a conscious decision to try and work in some new blood, some fresh voices, or is it just whatever stood out that year?
ANSWER FIVE: In recent years, I mention in my summary how many contributors I’ve never published previously in a Best of the Year. The forthcoming number eleven contains the most—thirteen. Number ten had nine. Number nine had eight.
This is exciting to me because it means new voices are regularly entering the field of horror, and many of these newcomers are doing incredible work. In addition, not all of the “new” contributors are new writers. Some are from outside the field, dipping their creative feet into horror for the first time, or only occasionally. And other times a veteran writer whose work I hadn’t picked previously, writes something that knocks me out.
It’s an indicator of the health of short horror fiction. But I don’t consciously choose to include new voices. It’s always the story first, not who wrote it.
QUESTION SIX: What are your favorite magazines and websites currently publishing? I know my students and fans would love to read what you’re reading. Are there any new publications that have caught your eye?
ANSWER SIX: I always enjoy reading Black Static, CrimeWave (when it comes out), Nightmare, The Dark, Uncanny, Supernatural Tales, Tor.com, and F&SF. The forthcoming volume has stories from Lamplight and Mystery Weekly Magazine, two magazines I was unaware of previously, but neither regularly publish horror. But the majority of my choices since editing a best of horror (including the 21 volumes of the horror half of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror) have come from anthologies and collections.
QUESTION SEVEN: When it comes to horror stories, could you talk a little bit about the state of affairs? What kind of horror stories (themes, subject matter, POV, setting, place, tone) are you dying to see, that you don’t get enough of AND then the opposite—what are you tired of reading, sick of seeing, eager to move on from? I definitely am drawn to hybrid fiction, horror that taps into other genres as well.
ANSWER SEVEN: I have no idea what I’d like to see until I see it. I will never discount a story because it’s on a specific theme. My only complaint is that I have to sift through so much dark fantasy. If a story doesn’t creep me out, or give me that frisson of unease, although I might enjoy it, I won’t take it for my Best Horror of the Year. There are many readers and writers who aren’t clear about the difference. To me, horror is generally harder-edged, has a neutral or downbeat ending, and rarely does everyone “live happily ever after.” There are exceptions, of course, as there are to everything.
QUESTION EIGHT: When it comes to putting together a new anthology, how do you decide on the theme? Is it something that is current, that seems timely? Is it a topic, emotion, or monster that has always appealed to you? Your projects—from dolls to fairy tales to Lovecraft—always resonate with me, and tap into something primal when it comes to terror and fear.
ANSWER EIGHT: Nothing current today will be current by the time an anthology is published a year or two later. You can’t follow trends unless you do a quickie, slap-dash job (with reprints only you might). Terri Windling and my young adult anthology Teeth, was meant to be commissioned by its publisher to capitalize on the young adult vampire craze and Terri and I intended it to be the anti-Twilight…with no glittery vampires. The book is a good one, including writers such as Garth Nix, Holly Black & Cassandra Clare, Neil Gaiman (with a poem), Melissa Marr, Catherynne M. Valente, Nathan Ballingrud, and Lucius Shepard to name a few of the contributors. But it didn’t sell up to its massive expectations.
What I usually do is choose topics that appeal to me.
Ideally, I’d love to mostly edit un-themed anthologies, but traditionally they have not sold as well as themed anthologies, so that makes it a harder sell to publishers. A theme must be something that will interest me for at least a couple of years, the period of time it takes to acquire and edit the stories (if original) and for the production process. The other criteria is that the theme must be broad enough for me to ask my contributors to stretch.
QUESTION NINE: So, what scares you? Simple question here (for once). May not be a simple answer, I know.
ANSWER NINE: I assume you mean outside of the art of horror text/film—if you do mean that…nothing. In real life, other than current politics, the loss of bodily integrity and the possibility of dementia and Alzheimer’s
QUESTION TEN: There has been a resurgence of horror at the cinema, I believe. What do you think about the new “literary horror” and the ways that Hollywood (or at least independent companies like A24 and Blumhouse) seems to be embracing horror? There have been (in my opinion) a ton of emotional, innovative, dark films in the last five years or so—Under the Skin, Enemy, Ex Machina, It Follows, Spring, The Witch, The Neon Demon, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Get Out, Us, A Quiet Place, Mother!, The Babadook, Hereditary, Suspiria, A Dark Song, etc. Any thoughts on what’s happening—what you like, what you don’t, what you’d love to see next?
ANSWER TEN: I don’t go to many horror movies, although I have seen all of the above except for Spring, and appreciate most of them. I’d also like to add Personal Shopper, which I think is topnotch. The only one I hate hate hate is Mother!, a shame because I usually love movies acted by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. Incidentally, the Blumhouse book imprint publisher the HWA anthology Haunted Nights edited by Lisa Morton and me and they’ll be publishing Final Cuts, a film horror anthology I’m finishing.
Thank you so much for your time and thoughts here, Ellen. Keep up the excellent work.