Tuesday 27 May 2014

Interview with Johnny Mains

Johnny Mains is a force to be reckoned with in the horror genre and that is only going to increase with his editorship of Salt Publishing’s new flagship anthology series, “Best British Horror”.  Passionate, enthusiastic and vocal, he helped bring back the Pan Books Of Horrors (including providing the facsimile of the cover art), he’s a supporter of new and old talent (and shares my love for the older, sleazier extremes) and his knowledge of the genre is extensive.  Generous, amusing, cutting, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly but he’s a genuinely nice bloke and he’s agreed to answer some questions.

So to start with, can you give us a little of your history?

photo courtesy Peter Coleborn
JM:   I have been a fan of horror since I was small, crossing over to reading adult horror anthologies and novels when I was thirteen. Remained a fan ever since; was completely and utterly ignorant of a UK horror scene as I was growing up because I spent many years going to the best and most highly illegal raves that the country had to offer. You wouldn’t find out where the location was until about an hour or so before it started, you dashed to a warehouse or field in the middle of nowhere, consumed vast amount of mind-bending substances and then danced your little hearts out until either the sun rose or the police came. Not that I raved forever, I knocked it on the head when I was 25 or 26 then consumed hundreds and thousands of another mind-bending substance. Books. In 2008 I had my first short story sale in The Third Black Book of Horror and then burst onto the scene proper in 2010 with my first anthology, Back From The Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories which won the British Fantasy Award the year after and project editing the 2010 re-launch of the very first volume of The Pan Book of Horror Stories.

MW:   What can you tell us of Best British Horror?

JM:   I was offered the gig in July of last year, so was already seven months behind in the terms of the reading I had to do. But the publishers and authors soon sent their stories in and I spent many hours locked away in the office, books and a notepad all over the floor and would aim to read an anthology in two days, a collection in one. Collections are the easiest, because sometimes there are only two or three original stories and the rest are reprints; that cut the workload down. Some books proved to be a real struggle because there were one or two stories that were so awful that it would utterly disrupt the rest of the book because you were on tenterhooks that the rest of the anthology would be awful.

We have 22 strange, and eclectic stories. Some really gruesome ones; some that will stay with you for a long time to come. Some I’ve chosen because I believe that the authors have written out of their skin and they deserve a wider audience than the small press affords. At the end of the day, these types of books are subjective and there will be people who will disagree with my selection – but I came at this to simply be entertained. If it didn’t entertain me, then it wasn’t going in. I did the book for me first, you lot second. As it should be. Same as when you write something. You write for yourself first, your audience, if you’re lucky to have one, second.

The book will also be honouring Joel Lane. His passing has deeply affected many people and it’s only right that his incredible legacy be honoured. We’ve actually used a story that was published in 2012 – the reason being is that I think the story shows Joel at his absolute best. And in following volumes I will be using a story from a fallen author from any given decade – to honour those authors that made a marked impression on me when I was growing up.

MW:   How did the deal with Salt come about?

JM:   They approached me, which is always lovely. I accepted and then the hard work began.

MW:   What is your plan for Best British Horror?  How do you see it sitting alongside the other ‘best of’ anthologies, such as those from Steve Jones and Ellen Datlow?

JM:   As BBH only focuses on homegrown talent it has nothing to do with the other best of anthologies, so they can continue to fight it out for themselves as to which one is the best. In my mind it has to be Steve Jones’ Best New Horror. Year after year he shows why he is the very best in the field

Paula Guran is another editor who has her finger on the pulse, and I really enjoy reading her selections They offer so much and I’m really looking forward to this year’s volume. She truly is at the top of her game.

MW:   Charlie Higson is quoted as saying that you have “extraordinary energy and [are] fighting a one man battle to preserve and revitalise the noble tradition of the horror anthology”.  What is it that draws you to anthologies?

JM:   They let me snack little and often.

MW:   You have a deep affection for “old horrors”, from writers to publishers and have certainly steered me well with recommendations of both books and second hand shops.  What is it about this strain of the genre that appeals to you?

I think the older horrors are more honest. More entertaining. Written with style and fun and always done with tongue in cheek. You think Conrad Hill ever sat down at a typewriter and that every word was wrenched from the deepest parts of his soul and a little bit of him died with every story he finished? Did he fuck. In goes the paper, here comes the smile, let’s be entertaining. Let’s have fun. Why on earth would you ever want to write if you didn’t enjoy it?  Please note I'm not saying that writing isn't hard, because it is - incredibly so at times.

MW:   In addition to your editing (five anthologies to date and counting), you’ve also written two collections - With Deepest Sympathy and Frightfully Cosy and Mild Stories For Nervous Types.  First of all, how do you find the time and secondly, what did you hope to capture with those books?  And do you think you succeeded?

JM:   In the early days of me jumping into the small press pool I had more time. Now I have an occasional understanding wife.  I do a lot at the weekends from around 4pm onwards. When I get down to it though, I can type really fast. Once I have the story mapped out in my head, I’ll just go for it until the missus wants me to do something or I’m exhausted.

The collections – the first was a bit of a mess, in truth I wasn’t ready for it, even though there are a couple of really strong stories in it. The second collection (Frightfully Cosy) I had a lot of fun writing, it does stand up to repeated readings and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, even though there are some rather disturbing stories in there (‘The Cure’ and ‘Dead Forest Air’). The reviews have been kind too, with everyone citing 'Aldeburgh', a sequel to M.R. James' 'A Warning to the Curious' as being worthy.

MW:   What is your preferred writing style (I ask this purely because of 'The Cannibal Whores of Effingham')?

JM:   I prefer writing with my tongue firmly in cheek, and love to go down the black humour route in my writing – but certainly a couple of people have said that my best stuff is when I play it straight down the middle and more firmly grounded in the everyday.

MW:   “Back From the Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror”, which was published through your Noose & Gibbet imprint, won the Best Anthology Award at the 2011 British Fantasy Society Awards.  I was there and it was a very well received win.  Did you take that as vindication of the hard work you’d been doing to get to that point?  What did the award mean to you?

JM: The award has meant a great deal, it’s opened up a lot of doors. I was worried that getting an award so early (first book, first win) would mean that my career was over before it began! Since then I’ve always stayed true to myself, have published the books that I want to see published and not because they are popular, etc. Same as the editing – I take it very seriously, am not swayed by anyone – the books are my vision, I know what I like and I’m only ever doing books that I want to read.

As to vindication etc… Let’s look at it this way: I am working hard to become a name in the mainstream. I’m willing to put the hours in, make the sacrifices needed and I will not take no for an answer. I am a firm believer that if you constantly push yourself and be the best that you can be then good things will happen. Take every opportunity that’s given and wring every last drop out of it. Throw a grenade and blow the fucker wide open. Make your own luck. I’ve got this far because nobody told me that I couldn’t do it. I have drive, passion and no shame.

MW:   You've recently announced REMAINS, a imprint of Salt Publishing that you are heading.  How did this come about?

JM:   Again, the head’s at Salt, Chris and Jen asked if I would be setting up my own horror novella e-book imprint. Whilst it was lovely to be asked, e-books are not really my thing. I’m a traditional book man, I know that many of my friends who are authors prefer ‘real’ books and convincing them to write an e-book only would be a tough sell. So we agreed to have a joint e-book and POD (print on demand) structure, giving us the best of both worlds. I have some great names lined up – Laura Mauro, Nathan Ballingrud, Lynda E Rucker, V.H. Leslie, Stephen Volk, Mark Morris, John Llewellyn Probert, D.P. Watt and others!

We will also be doing a Remains Classics line where I will be reprinting (in e-book only unless it’s something really special, then it will be released as a POD) novels from the 1700s till the 1970s. First up we have Frank Walford’s TWISTED CLAY, a 1930s ‘lesbian horror shocker’! And as it’s the first release, it will be published as a paperback, with some never before unearthed facts about the author.

MW:   That sounds right up my street!  So what are your aims for the imprint?

JM:   My aims for remains is to have a brilliant list of contemporary horror novellas, a much maligned area in the bookshop, I feel. I just want to give horror a bit more of a footing in the market.

MW:   I'm really looking forward to what you come up with through REMAINS.  But in the meantime, what can we expect next from you, beyond Best British Horror?

JM:  What day is it?

Next up is the Robert Aickman tribute anthology. Reprinting Frank Walford’s Twisted Clay. Some articles in Illustrator’s Quarterly. Back From the Dead being reprinted. A novella called The Gamekeeper being published. The launch of BBH in May. Co-editing Dead Funny with Robin Ince. Publishing Sarah Pinborough’s debut collection. Possibly a third collection. Might even get some sleep.

MW:   Thanks very much Johnny!

Welcome To The New Home Of Horror

Edited by the British Fantasy Award winning editor Johnny Mains, Salt’s ‘Best’ series takes a journey into the bottomless depths of horror. You will find no ‘pleasing terrors’ here.

‘Mercy stands before her, wielding a mud-caked pickaxe in both hands…’ 
—When Charlie Sleeps, Laura Mauro

‘Too much Semtex was an obvious, beginners mistake, and I noted I needed to remove more brain in future…’ 
—Exploding Raphaelesque Heads, Ian Hunter

‘There isn’t much time. Blood is already spattering the paper on which I am writing…’ 
—The Secondary Host, John Probert

‘It appeared to be an insect of some kind, perhaps a beetle or a spider with a bloated body…’ 
—Come Into My Parlour, Reggie Oliver

Best British Horror is a new anthology series dedicated to showcasing and proving without doubt, that when it comes to horror and supernatural fiction, Britain is its obvious and natural home.

“Johnny Mains is the go to man for horror in the UK. His extensive knowledge of and unbound passion for the genre is amazing. If there was a government ministry of horror (which there should be) Johnny would be in charge. He is the Minister For Horror. He has extraordinary energy and is fighting a one man battle to preserve and revitalise the noble tradition of the horror anthology. Oh, and he is a nice bloke as well.” 

From Salt Publishing, Best British Horror is available from all good bookshops for £9.99

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