Installment by Rick Kleffel
Between 1984 and 1989, William Schoell cut a bloody swath through the grocery store bookracks with a series of standalone horror novels published by Leisure Books. With titles like Spawn of Hell, Bride of Satan, Late at Night, Saurian, Shivers and Dragon, Schoell offered his readers gene-spliced monsters, psychics, curses, even a were-dinosaur, gleefully rendered with stripped-down prose and characters who had just enough life to die in an amazingly entertaining fashion.
His books were giddy, cheesy fun. But Schoell delivered the goods that horror readers had asked for, and he did it with a style that made his books reminiscent of the great Corman horror flicks. I started backward, reading Dragon first, in which explorers in New Mexico unearth a very Lovecraftian civilization. The discovery results in pregnant men, enormous slugs humping across the desert landscape, a living leftover monument, and the proper combination of awe, laughter and chills.
In a notable Afterword to Dragon, Schoell says, “I beg your indulgence, gentle reader, the tale you have just read is—for shame!—one chiefly of entertainment.” For an all-too-brief stretch, Schoell succeeded in keeping readers riveted and smiling, with nary a thought in their brains. For many, reading that prevents coherent thought is the acme of literature—and Schoell did that reliably for six years.
Then he vanished from the horror fiction scene. In vain, I searched the racks for his books. I haunted used bookstores, filling out his back catalogue. Where is he now, I wondered?
I managed to catch up with Mr. Schoell through the wonders of our connected age. I’ll let him tell you where he was, where he’s been, where he is, and where he’s going.
CD: Bill, tell us why and how you got the gig writing horror paperbacks for Leisure Books. What drew you to the horror genre?
WS: I’d always loved the horror genre, and was an unapologetic fan of monster movies, in particular. It’s no secret that my books were influenced by the creature features we all love with a few twists, and hopefully, more dimensional characters. Leisure was doing a lot of books in the genre, they liked my work—so I did a few books for them. And then a couple for St. Martin’s. The Leisure titles sold well and I remember asking the publisher if they might publicize them a bit more, and he acted mortally offended as if I’d shot him in the toe! I had other problems with Leisure. I loved writing, period, and horror was big at this time– Stephen King had helped revive the interest in the genre– so I gravitated toward it. In another era, I might not have.
CD: Which books from your horror heyday were your favorites?
WS: I think my best book was The Pact, which I did for St. Martin’s. (My last horror novel, which I also did for St. Martin’s, Fatal Beauty, is perhaps my cheesiest—but fun.) I also have affection for Saurian and The Dragon. Despite—or because of—its many “cheesy” elements I think The Dragon worked well on a creepy, entertaining level. Then there was Bride of Satan—how I hated that title that Leisure imposed on me. I wrote that book because I wondered how someone whose loved ones had been victims of a psycho would feel about all the mad slasher films that were dominating the screens at the time. Not to say that it deals with “weighty matters,” but I think there were thought-provoking elements in that book. And I took on the whole obsession with looks and cosmetic surgery in Fatal Beauty. My horror works were entertaining, but not entirely mindless. I think in my books, whatever their flaWS: , the reader gets some sense of my world-view, personality, what-have-you. Maybe that’s the difference between “cheese” and “schlock.” I’ve read books where I’ve gotten no sense of the author, of a reasonably intelligent mind at work, of how he or she sees things, never an interesting turn of phrase…Jackie Collins comes to mind.
CD: What was the scene like for you, a writer of grocery store paperback horror?
WS: Somewhat schizoid. Horror was Big, so there was a built-in fascination with it when you met people and told them what you did. But there was also a lot of condescension towards the genre, even from people in the field. I guess I just enjoyed getting paid for doing something I loved. Believe it or not, the books were actually carried in all the chain bookstores—Barnes and Noble, B. Dalton etc.—at least in the New York City area, where I live; even the Leisure titles. I think it was later on that Leisure’s books were consigned to the supermarket bins. In fact, Leisure did a better job of distribution at that time than the much bigger St. Martin’s (more on that later). Nowadays I have no idea where Leisure books are sold although I think they are still in business. I never see them anywhere. At that time and today I was and am an active freelance writer with my eggs in many baskets, so I just saw myself as a working writer. Still do.
CD: What else did you write besides the paperbacks? How and where did you publish your work?
WS: I did literally hundreds of articles for everything from mystery to movie to in-flight magazines. I also did non-fiction books. My first was in the horror genre, of course. It was Stay Out of the Shower: 25 Years of Shocker Films Beginning with Psycho. I did a book on Al Pacino, a very passionate actor, and one on film adaptations of comic book characters. I was hired by New Line Cinema to do an authorized look at the Nightmare on Elm Street films. I was able to insert more criticism of those movies than I thought I might. The FX are good, but most are pretty badly directed.
CD: Could you talk about the role of the small press back then?
WS: I don’t know if much of what we called “small press” has been eroded—for lack of a better word—by the Internet; I guess not, which is great. There were horror writers who sold dozens of stories to the small press magazines and that was all that they did, but that was okay. I had some involvement with the small press, sold a few stories here and there, and did a column called “Hidden Horrors” for The Scream Factory—horror where you don’t expect to find it, like at the opera, and so on. There were a great many small press mags devoted to the horror field when I was doing my novels, so many that I’m only vaguely familiar with most of them. The only problem for a freelancer was that they didn’t pay much, if anything, so I tended to avoid them and focus on higher-paying markets, as I write full-time. Leisure was a smaller mass market publisher, but not “small press,” and St. Martin’s was one of the biggest publishers in the country at that time.
CD: How did you feel about the high-profile and literary reputation the genre gained during those years?
WS: I had mixed feelings about it. The Afterword you refer to in The Dragon was my way of gently tweaking people a bit. I mean, it got to the point where people where raving about certain books or authors as if they were William Shakespeare! I have no problem with “depth” in a horror novel—in fact, I welcome it—but pretension is another story. And please don’t forget to entertain me. Some of the books were much too long—without the content to justify the length—unremittingly dreary, and not much fun. There were also some great books, too. On the other hand, some of the horror titles were too idiotic to be believed. “Monster horror”—or “cheesy horror” if you will—is one thing—I don’t claim that my books were intellectual exercises—but I never could get into those Church vs. Satan books and the ones where the Devil wastes his time phoning and scaring shop girls and the like. I’ve also noticed that if a horror author is “in fashion” he can fill up his books with all the monsters and mayhem and gore scenes he wants and he or she probably won’t be called “cheesy.” In other words, there is a double standard. But then we live in a world where a writer’s prose can be considered elegant when it’s really just the typeface.
CD: Could you talk about the business aspects of being a paperback writer during the boom? Did you have an agent?
WS: I have had several agents over the years. Nobody had a problem with the quality of my writing, but the subject matter, and those awful titles Leisure came up with, didn’t help. At the time I switched from Leisure to St. Martin’s—which did not please the folks at Leisure—I was represented by the William Morris agency. The first guy that I had switched me to a less experienced agent who was enthusiastic but needed more seasoning. I made a conscious effort to move away from monster books to books with a wider appeal. I cut my teeth, so to speak, on those Leisure/St. Martin’s titles, but I always knew I was capable of much more—and I was ready. This agent would submit my books to horror editors who praised my work but said “this book isn’t horror.” I nagged my agent to submit the manuscripts to thriller or mainstream editors, but he kept saying I was pegged as a “horror” author and that was that.
CD: Could you talk about when and how the bottom fell out of the market for you? Did you lose interest in the genre, or did the genre disintegrate to the point where the type of book you wrote no longer sold in the necessary numbers?
WS: It was a little of both. I could see the handwriting on the wall. Unlike the mystery or thriller genre, which generally stays strong, the horror genre goes in cycles. I was all set to do many more horror books for St. Martin’s, including a horror series set on a mysterious island—it would have been fun—when horror books stopped selling in record numbers (aside from King and a few others) and St. Martin’s shut down their horror line almost overnight. The two titles I did for them were not distributed as well as the Leisure books, as I said before, for that reason. Naturally, they didn’t sell as well, which the publisher seemed to blame me for! I’ll never forget my first agent at William Morris saying to me, “well, what do you do now?” And I thought to myself, “aren’t you supposed to be telling me?” Anyway, I felt it was necessary to write a kind of mainstream thriller with some “horror” elements instead of out and out horror, and certainly nothing with monsters devouring people. The Leisure titles were reissued and all sold well, but once you’re pigeon-holed, that’s that. I mean, I’d chopped, fricasseed, eaten, and parboiled enough victims in my books. I was losing interest in more of the same. That’s possibly why Fatal Beauty often reads like a parody of the genre. Also, I had a great many other interests that I wanted to explore in my writing, particularly the performing arts.
CD: You may have left the horror genre, but you certainly haven’t left the writing business…
WS: I haven’t entirely left the horror genre, either. I recently wrote two young adult biographies of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe—two absolute giants of the field. I’d much rather read Lovecraft and Poe than, say, Clive Barker, Koontz, or King, although they’ve all done some wonderful work. Even with science fiction I’d rather re-read Wells and Verne than some of our modern authors.
CD: How did you transition out of horror and into non-fiction?
WS: I was writing non-fiction articles and books all along, and then simply concentrated on them instead of fiction. The pay was better, and you didn’t have to write an entire book before you got a contract, as often happens with fiction. Also, depending on the subject, non-fiction is easier to promote. I was lucky that when I co-authored a book on the Rat Pack, Sinatra and his pals were all the retro rage. It sold better and got more media attention than anything else I’ve ever done—TV and neWS: paper intervieWS: , the works. I followed that up with a solo tome on Dean Martin called Martini Man, which also did well.
CD: Did your approach to the business of writing change or evolve as you left the horror genre?
WS: It stayed the same. For me it’s always been a combination of keeping an eye on trends, on what’s commercial and will sell (both to a publisher and to the readers) and those labor of love projects that every real writer loves to do even if he won’t make a dime. You have to keep a reasonable balance between the two.
CD: What were your thoughts about the genre once you’d left it behind?
WS: I used to read everything, but everything, in the field, but I found that I just didn’t have the time or as much interest. For a while the publishing world seemed to be taken over by lawyers who wrote books—or hired people to write them for them. Legal and medical thrillers seemed to crowd out the horror titles. Ironically, every now and then a “cheesy” monster book would get some attention: I remember all the flack over Meg, about a giant prehistoric shark or Megalodon; a literary “B” movie if ever there were one. There were a couple of others who got attention because they’d been pre-bought by the movies, but the movies never materialized. Meg was enjoyable on a certain level but not very well written. One that I did like very much was Jeff Rovin’s Vespers, about giant bats in Manhattan! I loved it! I used to read King and Koontz (Phantoms!) religiously but there were too many disappointing books with the former and the latter’s novels all began to read like the same book over and over again; it’s possible I’m being unfair here as I haven’t read everything. There’s probably much more interesting stuff being done in the small press. So many of the writers of the period when I was doing horror, even some of the fashionable ones, have just “disappeared,”—victims, I guess, of the Great Horror Implosion.
CD: Recently, we’re seeing a resurgence that’s reminiscent of the 1980s; horror writers are being touted for their literary value, horror movies come out almost every week, and horror genre television shoWS: lead butterfly lives, and once again, the small presses are blossoming. Having lived through the first bloom, what do you think about the current popularity of the genre?
WS: I have a certain wariness, of course, as I’m a living witness to the fact that booms eventually crash. Out-and-out horror titles almost seem to be the exclusive province of smaller publishers. I seem to recall someone in the Horror Writers Association being quoted to the effect that horror is still okay as long as it isn’t packaged as horror. This does not apply to guys like King and Koontz, although you can’t help but notice that much of their stuff isn’t “horror,” either.
CD: Have you thought about returning to horror fiction?
WS: Occasionally. It’s ironic that the best “horror” novels I ever did are the ones the agent I mentioned never sold. Only one of them has monsters eating screwed-up people; this was a dinosaur book that I did in the wake of Jurassic Park. There were too many dinosaur books, unfortunately. I still think these are viable books and may try to do something with them in the future. But I’ve never really been someone who looks backward all that much. Twenty years ago, if I’d looked in a crystal ball and seen that I was no longer writing horror, I’d have probably been upset, but now I honestly don’t care. One moves on.
CD: What are you currently working on?
WS: I’m working on more celebrity biographies, including one on Robert Redford. These books are a lot of work but in our celebrity-obsessed world they pay well. I’m doing more bios for young adults, as well, including one on Giuseppi Verdi. I also wrote a short play, “Joe and Janice,” that was performed at the American Theater of Actors in Manhattan a couple of years ago. My interests have always been a combination of the high-brow and low-brow, so it’s amusing that my next two projects are a book on twentieth century opera, and another on classic monster movies! A friend once told me that when he mentioned to a mutual acquaintance that I was an opera fan, the startled acquaintance said “Bill Schoell is an opera fan!?” People think that if you love or write horror—cheesy or “literary,” makes no difference—you can’t be intelligent or cultured enough to appreciate anything more “high-brow.” When another friend of mine—not a horror fan—read Saurian, he said “You spend so much time on the hero’s early life with his parents in that small town. It’s all very well done, but won’t the dummies who read these things get impatient waiting for the monster?” I guess it never occurred to him that I was one of the “dummies” who liked these kinds of books, especially as I was writing them. We are the last misunderstood minority. Most horror, science fiction, and comics fans that I know are perfectly intelligent and well-educated. Anyway, along that theme I have a performing arts website called “High and Low NY”(http://highandlowny.tripod.com)—although right now, admittedly, there’s more low-brow stuff on it than high-brow.
CD: And what can we expect in the future?
WS: More biographies, more plays, many more articles, more presence on the internet, and maybe even something in the horror field. I’m very appreciative of the fact that there are people who enjoyed and remember those old horror novels of mine; I had a lot of fun writing them.
CD: Thanks, Bill! I think I’m going to go back and give Dragon another spin.
WS: Thank you. This time look for all the metaphysical and psycho-sexual subtexts. (Just kidding!)