The Legendary John Skipp Brings Readers “Psychos”
Never one to do things by half measures, the legendary horror writer John Skipp has turned to editing anthologies with a vengeance, his titles including Zombies, Demons and Werewolves, and Shapeshifters. His latest is Psychos, a collection of thirty-eight terrifying tales of serial killers at large, written by the great masters of the genre. Authors include Neil Gaiman, Amelia Beamer, Robert Bloch, and Thomas Harris.
Omnivoracious caught up with Skipp to ask him, among other things, what makes for a great story about a psycho.
“Well, for starters, don’t skimp on the psychosis! That’s your primary ingredient! Past that, I’d say it’s a combination of great storytelling on the one hand and great psychological probity on the other, with language that manages to get authentically inside the experience of insanity, and pull you along.”
Since Psychos includes stories from several decades, Skipp has gained some perspective on how psycho stories have changed over the years. “I think we’ve just gotten a lot more honest about how crazy we all are sometimes, and the painful minutia therein. Its part and parcel of a larger shift—our cultural embrace of the monster—which you can see everywhere from the success of [the Showtime series] Dexter to the proliferation of sexy vampire and werewolf romance.
“Not saying that everyone does crazy right. Not even close. But these days, we’re much less apt to suggest insanity by having the character cartoonily bug one eye out and go ‘Hern hern hern…’ You know? Even the dumbest CSI wannabe spinoff on television demands greater sophistication than even fine writers of fiction used to routinely get away with. And that is good. But the great writers—the ones who truly excel at this—know too much, and are willing to share it in signature bursts of alarming clarity. And this book is full of them.
Skipp had a hard time picking just 38 stories from worthy possibilities. On the other hand, some decisions were easy. “The ones that turned me off I could usually tell by the end of the first page, if not the first paragraph, if I was in knowing hands. Here’s the thing: you can’t fake this [stuff]. Either you know what you’re talking about, have some serious insight, or you don’t. If you’re just guessing—if you’re like Barton Fink, just a tourist with a typewriter—then you can speculate all you want about the crazy world you live in, and why people do the horrible things they do. I like my luggage a little more lived-in. And can smell the difference a mile away.”
“Editing an anthology,” Skipp told us, “is like making a mix CD for someone you love. You want to provide a smooth, contiguous, propulsive, adventurous ride full of fast ones, slow ones, sad ones, funny ones, blisteringly violent ones and soulfully restrained ones. Running the gamut, and orchestrating transitions that you think will excite, propel, and contextualize it to the max.
Now obviously, most people won’t read the book straight through. But putting them in calculated order allows readers to lock into the flow, should they choose to. Or at least be ever-cognizant of the connective tissue.”
The most fun for Skipp came from “The surprises. The gamut-spanning revelations. Stacking one ‘Omigod, I can’t believe you wrote that!’ story after another. Getting to swim in the enormous talent pool and go, This one, this one, and this one will work.’ Making the smartest, vastest, most entertaining case for the literature I can. And putting it all in one place.”
But by far the biggest challenge in putting together the anthology was making sure the stories didn’t seem too similar to one another. “You’re looking at the kaleidoscope of human mental dysfunction, a shattered funhouse mirror with a trillion refracting shards pointing back at one simple act: people killing each other, one at a time, over and over again. What differentiates them lies entirely in the specifics. Who’s doing it. To whom. How. Where. And why. That’s why the writer’s voice and point of view is so important.
“I also devote a big chunk of my intro to differentiating between the different kinds of crimes, and kinds of crazy. The hallucinating schizophrenic is not the cold-blooded clinical psychopath is not the nice person pushed just a little too far by horrendous circumstance. It’s all very personal. Which is kind of the point. And very much where the variety comes in.”
Skipp admitted that for this anthology, “The sheer amount of both real and imaginary human horror I had to swallow, in the months of research involved, really wore me down hard. It took months to get the reek of madness out of my skin. But you guys should be juuuuust fine!”
That horror can also sometimes include the behind-the-scenes skinny on acquiring permissions to reprint a story. Skipp couldn’t share much with us, but did note that “I could publish an excellent novel for less than it would cost to reprint a Roald Dahl story right now.”
Since editing anthologies represents just a small part of an oeuvre spanning decades, we asked Skipp about being a survivor in a field littered with the carcasses of the fallen. “I attribute the bulk of my longevity to the fact that I haven’t died yet. Past that, the biggest thing I bring to the party is unbridled enthusiasm. I love my own work. I love the great work of others. I have devoted my life to keeping that torch aflame—setting myself on fire as needed—and then passing it on. If I matter to anyone, that’s probably why. Plus, I’m a lot of fun at parties.”
Skipp also admitted, with satisfaction, that “This is probably the busiest, most intense time of my entire weird career. I’ve teamed up with filmmaker Andrew Kasch (Thirsty, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy) to co-direct and produce a slew of crazy feature films, starting with The Long Last Call and Rose: The Bizarro Zombie Musical. Our first short, Stay At Home Dad, from a script by Cody Goodfellow, is freaking out audiences and winning awards on the festival circuit. We just took the audience bronze at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Toronto.”
Skipp also has two other books published in October: “Sick Chick Flicks, my twisted triple-bill of fem-o-centric horror screenplays, is now out in trade paper from Cemetery Dance…And my new horror/crime/suspense imprint, Ravenous Shadows, is publishing The Dark, a fantastic new L.A. horror novel by up-and-comers Scott Bradley and Peter Giglio.”