The Stories Not Told: An Interview with Jay Wilburn

Interview conducted by George Daniel Lea on April 20, 2016.

It was my pleasure recently to catch up with Jay Wilburn, a prominent writer in independent horror circles (as well as other arenas), whose work ranges from novels such as Time Eaters and Hollywood Hellmouth to short story collections such as The Dragonfly and The Siren. Jay was kind enough to provide a little elucidation on his life and work, as well as the beliefs and perspectives that inform them:

LEA: Could you tell us a little about your background in horror? Where do you feel that the fascination for the subject began, what influenced it etc?

WILBURN: I started out reading sci fi and fantasy as a kid. It, by Stephen King, was the first true horror book I read. I saw all the slasher movies and my dad enjoyed horror movies, so that opened me up to those tropes. Writing it in any serious way or professionally would come much later.

LEA: King does some to have a particular place in the seeding of an entire generation (or generations) of horror writers; I’m certainly no different (for me, it was The Mist, which I read my mother’s copy of whilst on holiday as a child). You mention your dad enjoying horror movies. Were you, like me, fairly uncensored in what you were allowed to watch as a child and a young man?

WILBURN: My dad wavered on that. There were times I had wide latitude and then something would click with him and he’d say, “We better change the channel.” Or why don’t you read something else for a while. That would last a while and then the boundaries would expand again.

LEA: Is there a point at which you recall deciding that you wanted to make such material yourself? Was it as the result of a particular work or experience?

WILBURN: The Stand changed the way I thought. I wouldn’t write apocalyptic stories until later, but I imagined scenarios constantly. The Romero zombie movies furthered that. The first stories I wrote were zombie stories. My first paid published story was a zombie story. I would expand out into other genre and other types of horror as I grew professionally. I never really thought of zombie stories as a horror subgenre at first. I just wrote stories about characters and about something.

LEA: Apocalyptic scenarios seem to be rather vogue at the moment, not only in horror and science fiction, but in various mediums and genres; a great many of the larger network shows currently making waves either have apocalyptic leanings or tackle the notion of apocalypse directly as their principle subject. Why do you think that is?

WILBURN: I’ve heard the theory that the economic and social trials of society impact the popularity of apocalyptic fiction as it reaches out into the mainstream. It’s supposedly why grand futures of space exploration gave way to dystopia beginning with nuclear holocaust stories in the 20th century. I think there is some appeal to the idea of wiping the slate and imagining a world where the alarm clock never goes off again. I think authoritarian dystopian lit lands with teens because it is the closest thing to how they think and feel about high school and growing up. Read the Hunger Games from the standpoint of a teen in high school and see how that plays in terms of adults watching kids fight each other to the death in an arena they built for their own observation and amusement. It takes on a whole new meaning.

LEA: Horror is often maligned in popular media as innately immoral, the most consistent claim that it makes entertainment out of sadism, mutilation and murder etc. This is evidently not the case, but what would your response be to those claims?

WILBURN: I get the push pull of who we think we are and then what we see in ourselves that we fear or don’t like. There is the world we want to be and the world that reveals itself to us over and over. Romance and sci fi and fantasy and so forth can all serve to help us process all these things about the world or escape them for a while, but when you hear a story in the news about people held in the basement of a suburban home for ten years, you’re going to need a genre that is equipped to address that reality about our world. I’m a religious person. I believe in God and the Bible. I’m also troubled, damaged, and dark. I believe in a religion that required God to be tortured and killed by the most excruciating method of execution devised by human history. The word “excruciating” actually comes from the word crucifixion. If our moral compass and criticism of horror arises from Judeo-Christian standards, there are only so many pastel pictures of a long-haired Jesus and choruses of “Jesus Loves Me” that we can sing before we have to come back to the notion that even our source of love, peace, and forgiveness is based on graphic notions of spilled blood and mutilation. Horror is human and even sometimes divine. It might just have the power to heal and save us.

LEA: I like that you reference the metaphysical potential in horrific and disturbing subjects; it seems to be something that so rarely crops up, outside of the pages of Clive Barker’s best work, but is one that endlessly fascinates me: as you say, the more utilitarian, psychological nature of the genre is that it provides imaginary arenas in which very dark drives and fascinations can be expressed and threshed out; it is a kind of auto-therapy, certainly for those of us that create it, and, I would hope, for those that consume it.

But the metaphysical, transcendent qualities…they truly fascinate me, though I tend to come at the subject from a less specific, more agnostic perspective. It reminds me of a recent encounter I had with a wonderful man who is an Anglican priest here in the UK, but adores H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker; horror cinema and video games (and has even read my work, which I found moving and distressing in equal measure).

Would you say that your faith has evolved as a result of your experience and fascination with such subjects? Could you tell us something on how your beliefs inform or influence your writing?

WILBURN: Faith is one aspect of a character that I define as I write. The character might be agnostic or atheist or deeply religious. I think in writing I try to explore ranges and hues to the idea of belief. As a feedback to my own life, I’m capable of imagining beliefs that are internally consistent while completely different from my own. I can even without psychological pain imagine that could be wrong and the other side of the argument could be right. I don’t get into many political or religious discussions on social media these days. If I have something to say, I typically bring it to the page and even then I explore a notion without ramming a set interpretation down a reader’s throat whether my own opinion is set on the subject or not. People won’t read and truly consider Facebook posts contrary to their ideas, but they will read and ponder entire novels of contrary ideas weaved into a story.

Most Christians, especially deeply religious ones such as we still find here in the American South, tend to connect very easily to God is love and we should be nice to each other. No argument here. The same personal outlook that connects me to horror also connects me to the darkness of the salvation experience as described in the Bible. I get the valley of the shadow of death. I get being irreparably sinful by nature. I also get the notion that grace has meaning in a life without options to save itself. I also get the idea of all people are broken and in need of grace instead of judgement. I have a fairly libertarian view of politics. I think “X, Y, and Z” are sins, but I see no reason to make those things illegal for people that don’t believe what I believe. That notion gets me in trouble with people that believe in the Bible the way I do. The idea that drugs should be legalized and that Marriage Equality should be the law of the land because more freedom is better than less freedom does not always land well with more fundamentalist circles where my beliefs would otherwise fit. My deepest connection between my faith and horror is the idea that a small amount of light has the power to push back darkness. Not all stories have a happy ending, but hope and faith can play even in the stories of deepest horror.

LEA: Horror fiction seems to be in a fairly florid state at present, largely thanks to the efflorescence of independent publication and small presses, not to mention myriad small publications and periodicals that specialise in the genre. What effect do you think this has had on the content and nature of the genre itself?

WILBURN: I think there is a lot of independent horror struggling to be mainstream, sanitized, and marketable. There is a glut of the genre and subgenres that creates a bit of a white noise effect. It discourages some writers and it has sunk some presses. Writers with a name suddenly find themselves adrift and in a panic because their pet publisher went under and they don’t know where to go next in an industry where it is tough to make a living or to even get noticed. At the same time, you find edgy, gloves off horror out there in the dark reaches. Gatekeepers are good for finding quality and testing the field. If you are willing to search, there is also some raw, edgy stuff that would never pass the gatekeepers, but now we can find it anyway.

LEA: From a reader’s perspective, it’s both cause for celebration and somewhat intimidating; because many small presses and independent publishers simply lack the reach and advertising means of larger, more established publication houses, it is sometimes difficult to find their work or to pin point writers that might appeal to your tastes. That said, I can’t deny a certain “kid in a candy store” feeling whenever I do a general search for “independent horror.”

WILBURN: I think the genre benefits from the occasional shake up. When the old guard or the “new” old guard takes it on the chin and starts reeling a bit, others get a chance to jump into the fight and benefit from their own perseverance and staying power.

LEA: The state of mainstream horror cinema is often lamented at present, and not entirely without reason. What are your thoughts concerning the state of the genre in cinema, how do you think it might develop in the future? Also, do you have any particular cinematic influences in your own writings?

WILBURN: Romero films set the zombie trope and that’s been an immeasurable influence. My father loved the movie Halloween and the first one had a slow, dark burn that most modern horror movies and audiences don’t have the patience for. The scares in written horror and visual horror are different. Both are very hard to achieve. There are some smart horror films out there. I think the creativity still comes through on a lot of neat little gems.

LEA: I’ve noticed that there seems to be an efflorescence of independent and amateur horror on video sharing sites such as YouTube, Vimeo and Twitch TV, much of it of the “found footage” and “documentary horror” sub-genre (which tends to be one of those genres people either respond to or they don’t). The results are inevitably mixed; some are fairly lamentable, whereas others are spectacular (the likes of Marble Hornets, Tribetwelve and EveryManHybrid are amazing pieces of work; so, so subtle and beautifully conceived), but it’s interesting to see the gradual movement away from mainstream or traditional production and venues to more open, potentially more inventive and transgressive arenas.

WILBURN: A wash of options is a good thing for fans. There will be a lot of bad imitations to anything that finds any audience ever, but in the midst of those you can find something amazing you wouldn’t find if no one was trying it.

LEA: Judging exclusively from your Facebook posts, you seem to be extremely busy much of the time; balancing family life, a household, paying bills etc with your written work. Can you tell us a little about you have developed your own regimen and how that has influenced your work? Also, how have your changing circumstances (becoming a husband, father etc) impacted upon your work?

WILBURN: I write fast. I believe I can still do this to quality. This helped me develop a revenue stream with ghostwriting. My writing income is a blend of small press and self published supplementing by ghostwriting. Some months ghostwriting pays more. Other months it is mostly money from writing in my own name. Ghostwriting money is quick. Self-published money is monthly. Small press is quarterly and can start half a year or longer after publication. I write throughout the day seven days a week. I write when I’m tired. I write when I’m sick. I write the day I get back from a long drive from a convention. I write at conventions. I write when I get out of the hospital. I take lots of breaks to pick up the kids from school, to deal with medical stuff, to play with my kids outside, etc. After breaks, I go back to writing. Rent and utilities are due every month. We have to eat every day. The car needs gas. My income from month to month can vary by thousands of dollars either direction. In my self published stuff, I have to pay for art, editing, and formatting. These demands keep the need to write and produce immediate for me and drives me to keep creating.

LEA: It sounds like you’ve very much carved out your own niche to do what you enjoy. I assume that you must still get a kick out of the raw mechanics and process of writing? I have read and heard from a number of writers who find the actual process agonising; an almost masochistic exercise. It sounds like you have a position which many would simultaneously envy and lament; envy in the sense that you are doing what you want and love to do, that you have found a way of making it work, but also lament in that your situation flies in the face of the culturally enshrined narrative (i.e. that of the “big contract,” the one lucky work that makes you a multi-millionaire). Do you think that many who attempt writing consistently simply find the raw work, energy; blood, sweat, tears and various other bodily substances that go into it too intimidating?

WILBURN: The reason most people don’t do something is usually some breed of fear. Giving up your seemingly stable job and writing for a living is a stupid idea by any metric. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it though. I did. There were a number of factors with my health and the needs of my kids that went into that choice, but ultimately it came down to the fact that I was deeply dissatisfied with my life the way it was and I no longer wanted to live and die that way. Full time writer is scary. It took work and sacrifice to get to a monthly paying my bills status. Ironically, paying your bills each month is considered insanely successful in the writing world. It’s odd to get congratulated and revered in some circles for essentially doing what every guy in the western world does with their jobs. A lot of people dream of being full time writers, but they don’t have the desire to scrape out a living to do it. I’ll go to conventions with friends of mine that do the same thing. We’ll listen to big names in the industry talk about how the writing world turned on them or they can’t sell anymore. We hear people that are better known and award wining authors who disparage some aspect of what we do with self-publishing or the sub genres we write or some other choices we’ve made. In most cases, these guys leave the conventions and go back to their day jobs while I go home and write full time. I have no problem with writers that keep a day job and put in the extra hours to write after that. I’m just sometimes a little taken aback by folks that arguably are wildly more successful than me, but never found a point worthy of taking a leap. I’m sort of looking from the other side of a leap of faith. Some people don’t want to jump and that’s fine. Others are staring over the drop and they want nothing more than to jump. I talk to a lot of people in that state of limbo. They approach me in person and online with questions and for advice – specific and general. Many of them are trying to figure out how to build a bridge or wait for the fog to clear so that they can see the drop better. I never tell anyone to just quit their job; no one gets pushed off the edge by me. I do assure them that if they do jump, they’ll land somewhere. 

LEA: Are there any particular writers that get your blood pumping, whose work you will always read and that you would cite as significant influences?

WILBURN: I read the big names that people know, but the most amazing stuff is from peers around me that do things that are new and deep. They really drive me to come up with something better. Armand Rosamilia, Jack Wallen, Max Booth III, Christian A. Larsen, Jessica McHugh, Adam Millard, A.D. Roland just to name a few and to leave out too many all have great work across genres and in my face that makes me want to write better.

LEA: Are there any habits, tropes or cliches in works of horror that you particularly enjoy or dislike? If so, what is about them that you particularly enjoy or dislike?

WILBURN: With zombies, everyone wants to come up with a new way to do zombies. That’s great, but some of them forget to include a worthwhile story for their new premise. There are some standout exceptions and that is always nice to find. I don’t like the “no” list in horror. Publishers want no harm to women, animals, children, minority groups, or stories that disparage any particular belief system. I don’t think every story has to be splatterpunk, but I think this is a misunderstanding of how horror should work. If you want diversity in stories, you have to have equal risk. It has reached a point in some anthologies where you read and think “a middle-aged straight white male protagonist … oh, this is about to get crazy!” 

LEA: I totally concur; part of the point of horror is that nothing should be forbidden. Nothing, no matter how traumatic, grotesque, distressing, it might be. The entire point of the genre’s existence is to allow human beings to experience those very states, even if only in imaginary arenas, where any consequences are entirely abstract. 

A certain irony I always find when something goes out of its way to protect my sensibilities is that I feel more affronted by the suggestion that I am to be handled with kid gloves because I belong to this demographic or that (I identify as gay, so there is technically plenty of potential for subjects and situations that might resonate with my own, but I would say that is entirely the point; I don’t want those situations or experiences to be swept under the rug for the sake of taste or comfort; I want them to be addressed, expressed and explored). Also, the stewards and gate-keepers of “taste” are doing us all a grand disservice; by ignoring the fact that hideous things happen out here in waking reality, they diminish reader’s awareness and knowledge of them. I always have a great deal of respect for those writers that can explore fraught and potentially hideous situations but do so in a manner that is meaningful and emotionally arousing, even if that emotion is sorrow or despair.

WILBURN: I do get the idea that the acquisition editors don’t want to waste their time with stories they know they won’t pick. Rape is a tough subject and the chances of them getting a story that deals with it well in an open call for a low-paying market is slim to none. They don’t want to subject their souls to a hundred or more badly written rape scenes just to confirm what they already believe to be true.

Opening all subjects up for discussion especially in horror is important. That does not mean that every writer then immediately runs to every taboo in every story. Great writers would not. Many of them would use the threat of something to achieve their goal in a story to better effect than an actual gratuitous featuring of the taboo. Other times, they would pull the trigger when it serves the story. Sanitizing the genre undermines that subtlety though.

I’m cis gender, but my main zombie series, The Dead Song Legend, features two gay male lead characters. There is a reluctance in modern literature to use LGBT characters as villains. This is a mistake, I think. There was a period in cinematic history where characters portrayed or implied to be gay on the screen were often used as villains. Obviously, that is a mistake too. It is worth knowing that history to avoid falling into old clichés or to inadvertently telling a story that’s already been told when you could stretch a little to tell something different. Every LGBT character story isn’t about coming out, coming of age, or coming to the realization. Those tend to be the type of stories mainstream literature feels most comfortable with. The reason I tend to dip into the well of LGBT characters for stories is because there tends to be the widest range of diversity of untold stories found there. It is the story that says something that readers, even liberal leaning readers of various genre, have not heard yet. That’s a story worth telling.

The open field that horror should be has limitless potential for telling meaningful, heart-wrenching stories that surprise and change us.

LEA: Thank you so much, Jay, for the detailed responses. Before we close, are there any projects that you are currently working on?

WILBURN: I’m working on book 4 of the Dead Song Legend. A cowritten novel with Armand Rosamilia, Yard Full of Bones, will be coming soon. I have a serial novel about vampires, religion, and politics available on Patreon for as a little as a dollar along with more exclusive material.


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