Today we are talking with William Jones, Lovecraft enthusiast, writer and editor of several magazines and anthologies, including The Anthology of Dark Wisdom: The Best of Dark Fiction. He has also published several gaming supplements for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing games.
IFP: How did you become interested in Lovecraft?
WJ: I came across a collection of his short stories when I was in my early teens. They were very different from the other types of stories I’d read – both Horror and SF. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. And, for me, the ideas behind his stories were intriguing and unusual. Also, HPL worked with very grandiose concepts in short fiction. That was another compelling aspect.
IFP: How did you begin writing RPG supplements?
WJ: As Fate would have it, I was born into a world where computers were rare things. So, from a young age, I was attracted to RPGs. They seemed like interactive novels. After having played them for years, I decided to apply some of what I’d learned to writing them. Then I figured out how to get in touch with publishers, and tried to understand what they wanted. Once that was done, I started writing supplements. Some of my earliest works were in SF RPGs. And they were published in the 1990s, a time when new publishers appeared and vanished in a few months. Because the industry was very unstable, I jumped to fiction writing.
IFP: If you could write a supplement in any location and time period, what would it be and why?
WJ: My answer changes with my fancy. After recently having finished several historical supplements, I’d like to try a modern setting. Maybe not too close to our present world. Shift things around a bit. I suppose I’m attracted to this because there are many exciting and fearful things occurring in the present, and extrapolating upon them offers many opportunities. Also, from a commercial point of view, paper RPGs must compete with computer games today and understanding the present world is easier than presenting an alternate history or future history. A modern setting means there is a lower threshold for new gamers and existing gamers. In some cases, large gaming tomes put off players today.
IFP: How do you think Mythos RPGs have affected how readers perceive Lovecraft and Mythos?
WJ: I certainly believe Lovecraftian Mythos RPGs have increased the number of fans of Lovecraft. I’ve attended enough conventions to see people purchase RPG books to read – not to play. They are dedicated fans of the Mythos. The RPGs, particularly Call of Cthulhu, have managed to keep HPL in the spotlight. Of course, what comes with that is the RPGs’ slant on the Mythos. This has diluted and, in some cases, convoluted HPL’s and friends’ original intentions. I’ve no idea if this is good or bad. The original texts still exist, so any reader who wants “original” Mythos (if there is such a thing) can readily find it.
IFP: The format of the magazine Dark Wisdom changed not so long ago. It is now a yearly anthology. Why the shift?
WJ: Readers of fiction – they are shrinking with the magazine market. Dark Wisdom Magazine supported itself from advertisements. It was a glossy, full colour, 80+-page magazine. The cover price did little to cover print runs. The magazine had gained a number of entertainment advertisers over the years (video games, films, etc.). But the advertisers didn’t like fiction (“too many words”). They wanted more “entertainment”. This meant reducing the fiction and replacing it with more advertising, or something that looked like an article but was really product placement. That just wasn’t the focus of the magazine. Add to that the time it took to negotiate and clarify print ads with ad agencies on the east and west coast, along with creative agencies (the people doing the ads) and, in the end, more time was spent prepping for ads than was given to fiction. After that, the magazine spent 8 weeks on the shelf and was removed. No one likes an “old” magazine. All of this helped the transformation. Dark Wisdom Magazine either had to become mostly entertainment or an anthology. Anthologies don’t require working with ad agencies. The choice was easy.
IFP: There was also talk of relaunching Dark Wisdom as an online magazine to complement the anthology. What can you tell us about that?
WJ: Yes, the magazine will re-launch as an online magazine. Hopefully sooner than later. Due to a transition with distributors and a backlog of projects on my end, the change has been delayed. However, I’m hoping the new year will bring with it the new format of the magazine.
As for the changes, it will continue to publish the same “dark fiction” it did previously. And it will include several of the features from the magazine – reviews, film vault. It will also have another editor heading it up. Overall, the magazine will hopefully have the same feel. Strong use of art, fiction, poetry, and articles.
IFP: Since the Dark Wisdom anthology should be hitting bookshelves soon, can you tell us about the kind of stories we can expect to find there? Are there any major themes?
WJ: The Anthology of Dark Wisdom: The Best of Dark Fiction is now in bookstores (and it is quite a lengthy title, both in content and in name). The first volume focuses upon “dark fiction”. That is to say, as the editor, I did my best to demonstrate what Dark Wisdom considered to be dark fiction – multi-genre, various settings and periods. Future anthologies will follow the approach of the magazine, each having stronger themes (with some variations), pulling from previous DW-published fiction, new fiction, and stories that have nothing to do with DW but are strong works of dark fiction.
IFP: Any chance your are opening the Dark Wisdom slush gates in the near future?
WJ: I think the online magazine will re-open with the launch. Hopefully, this won’t traumatize the new editor too much. In prior years, the magazine saw thousands of submissions a month. In fact, they are still coming in by post because many people don’t know the magazine is closed to submissions. Since DW was distributed internationally, submissions were overwhelming, coming from around the world. With that said, the key to getting into the magazine is to read it for a while – learn what the editor likes and submit a tale along those lines. It doesn’t work every time, but it improves the chances.
IFP: What is the secret to a great Lovecraftian story? What are the most common things writers get wrong? Clichés? Stuff you don’t like to see?
WJ: If I were to guess at the secret to a great Lovecraftian tale, I’d have to say it would be knowing that everyone has a different take on Lovecraft and what he or she likes. So, basically, I’d say there is no secret; otherwise, most everyone would be using it.
As for the clichés or things that writers get wrong, they vary from editor to editor. Personally, I’ve read too may tales that open with something like: Dear reader, you’ll not believe what I’m about to put to paper, and likely think me insane…
With that said, some of the tales I’ve enjoyed started in a similar fashion. For me, it depends upon how the writer deals with the subject and characters. I tend to stray from the name-dropping of creatures and long lists of books. But there are readers who enjoy those very elements. I don’t think either is right or wrong. It is a matter of taste. It has been my experience that Lovecraftian fiction has appeal to a non-Lovecraftian audience if it doesn’t seem too intimidating up front. In other words, if it doesn’t require the reader to already have a strong understanding of the Mythos or Lovecraftian tradition. Basically, a self-contained work. Over the years, I’ve been able to publish Lovecraftian stories in markets that did not accept Lovecraftian tales, mainly because I avoided names and re-using tropes. However, any fan of the Mythos would recognize the inspiration. In these cases, the editors tend not to be fans of the Mythos, and I slip under the radar, so to speak.
IFP: Aside from Lovecraft and Mythos stuff, what other writers do you admire and enjoy reading?
WJ: I have quite a varied list of writers I enjoy and admire. I left a career with an aerospace firm to get a doctorate in literature. During that time, I jumped across history, reading numerous authors. If I had to choose one, I’d say the most influence was Homer (not a very original answer). From there, the list grows as we pass through the centuries. For the reader’s sake, I’ll not start throwing out lists of names. Certainly, I enjoy Borges, Heinlein, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Richard Matheson, both Campbells – John and Ramsey, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others in various genres.
IFP: What are you working on right now?
WJ: I’ve just finished the novel, Pallid Light. It will appear in bookstores in Feb. 2010. It is a modern horror/thriller with a touch of SF. I’m also completing two anthologies, Tales Out of Miskatonic University, and Ancient Shadows. There is another High Seas Cthulhu in the works, and I have two novels due in the next 15 months, so I’ll be moving to those next.
IFP: What is your dream project?
WJ: A very good question. I’m not sure I have an answer. Perhaps this sounds over the top, but presently, the things I’m writing are my dream projects. I’ve been able to leave my job teaching at a university to write full-time. I have been quite fortunate to end up writing what I enjoy.
IFP: What is your favourite Lovecraft/Mythos story?
WJ: “From Beyond” is one of my favourite HPL tales. It was the premise for the Horrors Beyond anthologies, and it is a tale I always enjoy re-reading. Certainly, there are others, but that was the one which hooked me with Lovecraft.
IFP: If you could be a Lovecraft character or creature, who would you be and why?
WJ: A hard choice. Lovecraft often stated that his universe and his creations were not “evil”; rather, he wrote they were “uncaring”. Perhaps they have a void of empathy. Or are apathetic. While in the eyes of an alien, this is may not be negative behavior, in the eyes of most humans it is. Standing by while others die seems a less-than-“good”. The same is true for bringing about a human’s demise. Since I’m a person who is not apathetic, choosing is tough. And clearly, I’m over-thinking it. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist being a Yith. Yes, they are a bit persecuted, but being the self-proclaimed masters of space and time, it seems like they have a number of avenues open to them. And they can certainly cause a lot of havoc. Sounds like fun. Then again, Shoggoths seem to have a pretty good life, when not being experimented upon, enslaved, or killed. I guess they just go with the flow.
Bio: William Jones has received Bram Stoker Award, International Horror Guild Award and Origins Award nominations for his works. He is the editor of several anthologies, including The Anthology of Dark Wisdom: The Best of Dark Fiction, Frontier Cthulhu: Ancient Horrors in the New World, High Seas Cthulhu, and the Horrors Beyond Series. His book, The Strange Cases of Rudolph Pearson, was selected by editor Ellen Datlow as a “seminal” work for readers of Lovecraftian horror. He has also written a number of role-playing game supplements, and his writings have been translated into several languages. His most recent novel is Pallid Light: The Waking Dead. He lives in Michigan.