If someone ever tells you that books aren’t scary, kindly hand them a Jonathan Janz novel.
Janz’s literary influences is a who’s who of the best in the business, names like King, Lansdale, Bradbury, Matheson and James, and it shows in his work. That suffocating layer of paranoia resting on your shoulders when you turn each page? The distinct pit in your stomach that grows with each passing chapter? It’s all there in Janz’s library.
The Colorado Springs native has been a must-read for years now but he’s been writing for decades, finding his love for the written word after reading – what else – a Stephen King novel as a teen. Now, he’s widely considered one of the best in the genre.
Janz has written over a dozen novels and a chilling pile of short stories that will sit with you like your favorite nightmare. His latest release, The Siren and the Specter, is a deliciously dreadful ghost story released by Flame Tree Press. I’ve been reading this book for a while now and it’s one of those books that put me in quite the bind – I want to finish it in one sitting because it’s so damn good but I want to take my time with it and savor every sentence. Look for my review shortly.
In the meantime, grab a seat and check out my chat with Mr. Janz below.
MANGLED MATTERS: You’ve famously been called “one of the best writers in modern horror to come along in the last decade”. How does one live up to that sort of billing with each new project?
JONATHAN JANZ: It’s funny. The older I get, the more I feel I know myself. Self-knowledge can be painful, but it can also be tremendously helpful. I’ve gotten a better sense of my strengths and weaknesses, and for this reason I can say that writing is ideally suited to my personality. Even though I put incredible pressure on myself in most ways, I’m able to shut that self-critical mode off when I write my rough drafts. When I’m writing, I’m not worried about pressure or praise or failing or not being as good as my last book. I just go. Then, when I get to the editing phase, I’ve got good solid material with which to work. And I’ve really improved as an editor. So the roundabout answer to your question is I don’t get hung up on self-induced one-upsmanship. I just do my best, and so far, that seems to be working.
MM: Do you feel any added pressure when praise like that comes along?
JJ: Having said the above, when I’m not writing, yes, I feel some of that pressure. Guys like Brian Keene and Joe R. Lansdale don’t just hand out blurbs like candy, so when they say something kind about you, you want to honor it.
MM: Growing up, who or what stirred up the horror love within you?
JJ: Old albums helped. I remember listening to recorded versions of Charles Dickens’s “The Signal-Man” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I also vividly remember watching creepy television shows like The Twilight Zone and In Search Of…
Those titles, combined with the location of our tiny house (on the edge of town between a forest and a graveyard) made my love of horror inevitable.
MM: The Siren and the Specter is a stirring and eerie novel with some nice subtle nods to the genre’s past while also keeping the ‘ghost story’ troupe fresh. What inspired you to write this one?
JJ: Hey, thank you so much! I’m delighted to hear that. The inspiration came from a vacation my family and I took in Virginia. The house in which we stayed is pretty much as it’s described in the novel. The peninsula, the seclusion, the park, and the island are all accurately depicted too. And of course the Rappahannock River is real. All of those setting elements helped stir my imagination. There were other inspirations (Purdue University, for instance, is my alma mater, and it’s the place where my protagonist teaches), but the setting was the primary inspiration.
MM: Of your twelve novels, I love that not a single one conforms to the cookie cutter form of horror literature at all. They’re wild, organic and unsettling. Authors often discuss finding their voice. Is there a novel of yours in particular where you first thought, ‘There it is. That’s my voice.’?
JJ: Thank you! What a great question too. I’d say…probably The Nightmare Girl was when I felt like it was more my voice than a mosaic-style amalgam of my influences. The influences are still there, of course—there’s a strong Joe R. Lansdale flavor in The Nightmare Girl—but in that book I felt more comfortable in my own writing skin than I ever had before.
It was a gradual process, so I’m not invalidating the work that came before that book. There are many parts in Dust Devils and Castle of Sorrows, for instance, that reflect my growing comfort level. And I’m still very proud of all my books, the early ones included. But I guess in The Nightmare Girl and soon after in Wolf Land, I can see a growing confidence in my writing. Then in Children of the Dark and The Siren and the Specter, there’s even more of that. But like I said, I love all my books, and the process of becoming comfortable with myself as a writer has been a very gradual one.
MM: Do you prefer silence or music when you are writing?
JJ: Definitely music. Baroque music, to be specific. Yo-Yo Ma’s renditions of Bach, Vivaldi, and other artists are my favorites. That sort of music, for whatever reason, galvanize my brain and my typing fingers—even though I can’t actually type and am only able to hunt and peck.
MM: Do you stick to a firm writing schedule?
JJ: I try to, but it hasn’t been as firm as I’d like lately. During the summer, it’s like clockwork: get up early, write for three or four hours, then join my family for the rest of the day. During the school year, however, the day job intrudes, as do a great many other obligations, like coaching my children’s sports teams. I try to write on the weekends, but lately, that time has been absorbed by grading papers and writing letters of recommendation for my senior students.
MM: You can have dinner with two horror authors, one alive and one deceased. Who gets an invite to the table and why?
JJ: The living one is easy: Stephen King. He has meant everything to me as a reader, a writer, and a teacher. The deceased one would be more difficult but would likely either be Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson. Those two have been incredibly important in my development as a writer. Plus, I really love their books. Of course, I’d also love to hang out with Jack Ketchum/Dallas Mayr again, so he’d have to be invited.
MM: Having created both novels and short stories, is there a form you prefer more than the other?
JJ: I always tell my students that the story is the boss. Some tales want to be short stories; others want to be novellas. For whatever reason, the majority of my ideas yearn to be novel-length, so I follow those stories to their logical endings. I do love all story lengths, but I guess my output suggests I prefer novels the most.
MM: Over the years, how have you noticed your writing evolve? I’m sure there have been conscious changes but what about the more subtle, subconscious things?
JJ: I don’t want this to come off the wrong way because I can still accept criticism, and sometimes criticism can help me (or any writer) improve. However, because I understand the elements of storytelling better than I once did, I can look at a lot of criticism and say, “Yeah…nope. Not worried about that. If a specific reader feels that way, that’s cool, and he/she is entitled to that opinion, but I did that for a reason, and I like it just fine.” The ability to be objectively confident in what you’ve written is very liberating. Again, it’s not shutting your ears to criticism because there will always be areas in which I can improve. But some criticism no longer stings because you realize you can disagree with it and be happy with what you did.
MM: The Midwest has a fantastic horror author scene in general. Who are some of your favorite ‘local’ authors?
JJ: Admission: I’m not as plugged into the local scene as I should be, though I am friends with a handful of Midwestern authors. The one I know the best is Tim Waggoner. From the beginning he has been kind to me and extremely generous with his time. It also helps that he’s a fantastic writer and a thoroughly successful one who has demonstrated an ability to succeed in all sorts of mediums and lengths. But though I always love his writing, it’s his friendship I appreciate the most. He’s one of the genuinely great people in this business.
MM: Are you scheduled to attend any conventions or shows in the near future?
JJ: Thank you for asking! Yes, I’ll be signing in Lafayette, Indiana on December 16th at Second Flight Books. In 2019 I’ll be attending my first ever StokerCon. I’m penciled in at three other 2019 events, but I don’t want to speak out of turn or before the ink has dried. Additionally, I’ll also be heading to upper Wisconsin as a guest Creative Writing instructor for young people at some point in April.
MM: If I asked you to recommend a newer horror novel, the first one that comes to mind, what is it and why do you love it?
JJ: This might seem like an odd choice, but the freshest one in my mind is Caroline Kepnes’s You. Some might argue it isn’t horror, but I think it is, and since I’m answering this question, I’m choosing it. Kepnes’s writing is extraordinary. She’s a truly original voice. I’ll be reading her other books soon.
MM: What are you currently working on?
JJ: I’m hard at work editing Children of the Dark 2 right now. Once that’s edited, I’ll be finishing writing Marla, and then, obviously, I’ll edit Marla. That one is going really well. It’s a horror novel, but it’s also a mystery, which is a fun genre in which to write. It’s developing into a creepy tale that I think, if I can get it right, folks will really love.
After Marla, there’s a top-secret project I’m working on that I’m extremely excited about.
Thank you so much for having me!
With Halloween right around the corner, do yourself a favor and pick up a few titles from Janz’s collection over on Amazon. You really can’t go wrong with whatever you pick. Might I suggest Exorcist Falls and The Siren and the Specter.
Keep up on all things going on in Jonathan Janz’s horror head by checking out his site! You’ll find links to his social media and Good Reads page on there, too.