The late 1980s and early 1990s were quite literally a dark time for horror fiction, with the prior boom era producing countless formulaic titles that led to the genre’s popularity bottoming out, and many established authors being cut loose by their long-time publishers. Against this backdrop, Canadian author Sean Costello not only produced three novels – Eden’s Eyes (1989), The Cartoonist (1990), and Captain Quad (1991) – that that were refreshingly original in concept, but also achieved sufficient commercial success to be offered another three-book contract by his publisher, Pocket Books. In the following interview, Costello talks about why he declined the offer from Pocket, and why, after almost 20 years, he has recently returned to writing horror.
RM: From the research I’ve done, it would seem that the birth of your son, combined with a demanding “day job” as an anesthesiologist, led to the prolonged quiet period after your third novel, but could you describe it in your own words for us?
SC: By the time my son Steve was born in 1992, Pocket Books had already offered me a ‘book-a-year for the next 3 years’ contract; but given the fact that I was putting in a 60-80 hour work week in anesthesia, and had vowed to be as present a father as I could possibly be, I declined the offer from Pocket and decided to concentrate on being a dad. In retrospect, had the money from writing been sufficient to support a family, I believe I might have considered writing full time.
RM: When you returned to publishing 11 years later, your next two novels – Finders Keepers (2002) and Sandman (2003) – were thrillers. Was the change in subject matter more an acknowledgment of the marketplace, or a personal change in taste?
SC: The change in direction had more to do with feeling tapped out in terms of fresh ideas in the horror genre. In the interim I’d begun reading some of the great thriller writers, and when the itch to write again came along I thought it might be a fun canvas to scribble on. From the outset I’ve written for my own pleasure, and the thrillers were just what I felt like doing at the time.
RM: How did you connect with the publisher Red Tower for those two books?
SC: Red Tower was actually my own invention. I’d built up a fairly solid local following, and by that point in time had decided to cater only to them. I had the books printed by a POD outfit called Lightning Source, and the Chapters outlet in town was kind enough to market them for me. As a hobby writer it suited me quite well and I had a lot of fun with it. I sold about 2000 copies of each title and even made a few bucks.
RM: The plot of Sandman involves an anesthesiologist… would it be accurate to say that that book is in some way your most “personal” novel?
SC: The book that feels most personal to me is Here After. Sandman was just an obvious place for an anesthesiologist with a slightly bent mind to go. I used to call it ‘the definitive autobiography.’
RM: After those two books, you returned to horror with Here After. Why the switch back?
SC: Since I’ve got more fingers than good ideas, I believe in taking what the muse has to offer.
RM: I believe that Here After had a 2nd printing… is it safe to say that the book has done fairly well commercially?
SC: Here After was another book that felt more at home locally, and I was fortunate enough to have this one printed and distributed by Your Scrivener Press, which is owned and operated by Laurence Steven, a university professor here in Sudbury. I thought he did a marvelous job of it and it’s still the book I’m most proud of, both for the storyline and for how great it looks on the shelf.
RM: How did the decision come about by Your Scrivener Press to reprint Captain Quad after 20 years?
SC: I had reprinted the other two Pocket Book titles myself under the Red Tower logo, but had never gotten around to doing so with Captain Quad. Scrivener thought it might be a good idea to complete the sequence with one of his gorgeous trade paperbacks. I’m glad he did.
RM: In your acknowledgments for The Cartoonist, you mention Richard Curtis… I assume he was your agent? How did you initially connect with him? Did you just send him a manuscript “over the transom,” or did you have a referral or connection?
SC: Richard Curtis was my agent on those first three novels and I was fortunate enough to have been referred by another of his clients.
RM: Do you have any unpublished “trunk” novels that might see the light of day?
SC: Not so far.
RM: As far as I know, you haven’t published any short fiction… is that more of an economic decision or do you just lean more towards longer works?
SC: When I started out in the mid-eighties I wrote a bunch of short horror fiction and had two or three titles published in small press magazines. I guess I lost the taste for it once I realized I could muddle through an entire novel.
RM: I’ve seen your current status described as semi-retired… for an anesthesiologist, what exactly does that mean?
SC: I’ve stopped [being on-call] and have been able to limit the degree of complexity of the cases I do, making the work-week much shorter and much less stressful.
RM: Now that you have a little more time on your hands, how ambitious are your plans for writing? To put it another way, what are you working on?
SC: I’ve been fiddling with a new novel, a dark-comic thriller called Squall, and am currently negotiating an option agreement for the making of Here After into a feature film.