If Orrin Grey had it his way, he’d likely be penning his creepy stories from the dank confines of a ruined abbey or the shuttered attic of a familial mansion owned by a clan of eccentric psychos. As it stands, the author has no trouble penning yarns of ghastly and moribund power from his home base in Kansas, resulting in two collections to date: Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings (now out of print from Evileye Books) and Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, the latter reviewed earlier this week. He also currently serves as the columnist of the “Vault of Secrets” series at Innsmouth Free Press and an occasional editor. Orrin took some time to sit down and chat with us about monsters (and their ghosts), cinematic influence, and the joys of visual horror.
• How are you doing, Orrin?
Pretty good. A lot of deadlines right now, but better to have too much work than not enough…
• You’ve acknowledged films as being a heavy influence on your work. While horror pictures are obviously referenced in your fiction, have there been other genres or particular movies that added to your desire to write or that have influenced a specific story?
Absolutely! I like all sorts of movies, and most of them probably affect my approach to storytelling in one way or another, though if you want me to say which ones, that’s a tougher question to answer. When I was a kid, the Indiana Jones movies had a big impact on me, and between those and comic books I grew up with this entrenched love of pulpy adventure stories, which probably works its way into most of my writing, even when I’m writing something pretty different than that. I’m also really addicted to movies about people sorting through papers and looking at old photographs (see David Fincher’s ZODIAC, as a for instance), and I think that the tension between those two approaches might summarize a lot of what’s going on when I write.
• While you achieve certain moments of chilling dread in your tales, overall your aesthetic leans more toward an “old-fashioned” and fun conception of the grim and gruesome. Do you consider it challenging to write about old dark houses in a world geared towards “grittier” fare?
I think the hardest part is probably having confidence in it, staying true to it. There are lots of people out there doing grimmer, weightier stuff, and they’re doing such amazing work, it’s easy to look at them and say, “Damn, that’s what I should be doing!” But I think, ultimately, that there’s a place for both approaches. Some of us get to be Hitchcock, and some of us get to be William Castle. I’m pretty okay with that.
• An intriguing fascination with weirdly-manifested ghosts of non-traditional remains develops in some of your stories (the giant Japanese monster of “Strange Beast,” the tooth creature of “Remains”). What makes you keep returning to this concept?
I love ghosts and I love monsters, so the best of both worlds seems like it would be the ghosts of monsters, right? That’s part of it, but also my conception of ghosts and what I want ghosts to be is really heavily informed by guys like M.R. James and E.F. Benson.
James especially, his ghosts are hardly ever “a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule,” as Lovecraft put it. They’re these weird creatures that are often all-too-tangible, and feel more like the ghosts of inanimate objects than the ghosts of people. I’m also fond of taking quiet, subtle stories, and putting something very un-subtle at the heart of them. I think I got that particular trait from Mike Mignola.
• One of the great aspects of horror is its seemingly endless sub-genres and formats. Is there a certain type of story that you haven’t told yet that you would like to one day experiment with? (Personally, I think you could create a great paranormal investigator along the lines of Dr. Strange or Hellboy.)
I have definitely considered a paranormal investigator character. Besides the aforementioned, GHOSTBUSTERS and Brian Lumley’s Necroscope stories were early formative influences, and I also love Hodgson’s Carnacki, Tiziano Sclavi’s Dylan Dog, and Gary Gianni’s Monster Men comics, to name just a few. Even Clive Barker has his Harry D’Amour. Which may, in some ways, be why I’ve never done one; the competition is just so intimidating!
One of the reasons that I stick with horror is probably that there are so many tropes and ideas that I want to tackle that I’ll never get through them all. I’ve touched upon haunted houses a couple of times now, but I’d love to do a longer work in that vein. I’d like to write an actual, full-on Gothic romance, though knowing me, mine would probably have a dinosaur in it, or something. I co-edited the Fungi anthology with Silvia Moreno-Garcia because fungal creatures are maybe my favorite monster sub-type, but in spite of that I’ve still never written a fungus story of my own. The list really does go on and on…
• Your reading background seems to involve a healthy amount of comic books and graphic novels. You’ve even written a story for Pandemonium (Kaleidoscope Entertainment). Is this a medium you intend to tackle more frequently in the future? What are some of the challenges that come with depicting horror in the form of a visual comic strip?
I don’t actually know what ever became of that story for Pandemonium. I saw artwork for it and everything, but it seems to have dropped off into oblivion for the time being. To answer your question, yeah, I would love to tackle more horror comics in the future, should the opportunity arise. There’s an obvious strand of comic book influence that runs through my work—from the old Creepy and Eerie comics to stuff like Swamp Thing and Jack Kirby monsters and, of course, Hellboy. In the meantime, I’m actually working on a pitch for an illustrated mid-grade book with artist Eric Orchard that’ll be pretty close to comics in a lot of ways.
I think that, when it comes to comics—or to film, for that matter—the visual medium is both a blessing and a curse to horror. You can generate these much more concrete images, but you’re also tied to those more solid conceptions of things. While good horror comics and films can still be freighted with implication and suggestion, you can’t just say, “It was like this, or maybe it was like that,” because it’s right there, everybody can see what it’s like.
• Along those same lines and considering the nature of your influences, do you think you’d ever approach the prospect of writing for the screen? The film treatment nature of “Lovecrafting” implies that you’d have a good handle on it.
I would jump at the chance. Though, honestly, I’d kind of rather write something original, or adapt someone else’s work to the screen, than adapt a story of my own. I want one of my stories to get just completely butchered and made into whatever the modern equivalent of a hack-job 80s direct-to-video feature is. A SyFy original movie, maybe?
• You discover at the reading of your late Uncle Cyrus’ will that the eccentric codger has just bequeathed you all the resources you need to complete one of your dream projects. What is it?
Building a time machine to go back and ensure that Willis O’Brien’s KING KONG VS. FRANKENSTEIN actually got made probably isn’t a feasible project, huh? In that case, I would start a company that brings hard-to-find movies back into print. Sort of like Valancourt Books, but for film. There are lots of good companies doing that already—Scream Factory’s efforts for horror films leap immediately to mind—but there are still plenty more that I want to see get the deluxe treatment. Combine it with a publishing arm to hire some of my favorite authors to write book-length treatises about their favorite movies, and we’re good to go.
• What are some insights you’ve gained from your experience as a freelance author? Any advice you’d offer to those who are interested in pursuing that career path?
The thing that surprised me the most about being a freelance writer is how little actual writing it involves. Or rather, how much time I spend doing other stuff; the administrative work that goes into finding clients, pitching concepts, signing contracts, and so on and so forth is a little staggering when you’re not used to it.
• What/who are specific stories/authors in the dark fiction field that you would happily recommend to our readers?
This question is always a problem, not because I can’t think of anyone, but because there are too many people who are doing amazing work in this field right now, and no matter how careful I am, I’m always going to leave someone out. So since it’s Women in Horror Month right now, I’ll restrict myself to a handful of women authors that everyone should be reading.
I’ve already mentioned Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who is my frequent editor and sometime co-conspirator. Her first novel Signal to Noise made a big splash last year, and her next one just went up for pre-order, but for my money she should be a lot better known for her short fiction, which is universally excellent. Speaking of novels, though, Amanda Downum’s latest, Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, was one of the best things I read last year, along with Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion. I haven’t yet gotten a chance to read Gemma Files’ Experimental Film, but I can’t wait. Gemma is an amazing storyteller, and one of the few people I’ve ever met whose knowledge of film puts mine completely to shame. As for forthcoming books, my good friend Selena Chambers’ latest chapbook, The Last Session, is currently available for pre-order. That’s just a few, but I’d better keep it to that, or else risk going on all day.
• While we consider chicken and wine in a ratty old crypt with Dr. Pretorius to be a fine date, what would make an ideal dinner-and-movie combination for you?
Well, I watch a lot of movies, but my favorite dinner is some really good fried rice and a really cold glass of Wild Cherry Pepsi. And if you want to sweep me off my feet, there’s an adaptation of William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” that was an episode of an old 1950s TV show called SUSPICION that I have always wanted to see. So far as I know the only extant copy is in a film archive out in California. So buy me some good Chinese take-out and a Wild Cherry Pepsi, and fly me out there to watch that, and you’ve got yourself a date.
• Writing defines a large part of your life. Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of it that are of equal passion?
This may make me sound dreadfully boring, but aside from writing, movies are my primary hobby. Not just watching them, but also researching them, learning about the history of them, how they’re made, that kind of thing. I used to do a lot of tabletop gaming and play a lot of video games, but I no longer seem to have the time to do either as much as I once did. That said, I regularly write for Privateer Press, and I still field Gatormen in their games whenever I get the chance.
• Are there any current projects or upcoming releases of yours that you’d like to talk about?
The big project on the immediate horizon for me is my next book, which is going to be a collection of columns that I wrote on vintage horror cinema for Innsmouth Free Press. I’ve been writing the columns for the last few years, and IFP is going to put them all into a book—along with some new material—called Monsters from the Vault, which should be out later this year. I’m putting the finishing touches on the manuscript right now, and I’m pretty happy with it. I think it makes a good companion piece to Painted Monsters, if anyone can’t get enough of me rambling about old monster movies.
• Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Orrin.
My pleasure! Thank you for having me.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.