If you're looking for a unique (if not twisted) blend of humor and horror, Jeff Strand is the man. Nominated four times for the coveted Bram Stoker Award, Jeff has more than 40 books under his belt, and apparently has many more yet to spring from his tilted brain. Just the titles of some of his books tell you much about the man—Dead Clown Barbecue, Blister, A Bad Day for Voodoo, Everything Has Teeth, The Sinister Mr. Corpse, and The Severed Nose, just to name a few. He has been the Master of Ceremonies of the Bram Stoker Awards banquet for years, and is a familiar face in horror circles.
Jeff became a full-time writer in 2015, and would probably write even more if he wasn't so addicted to videogames and Spider-Man comics. But he did find time to talk with me about … well, stuff.
You're trapped in a cave with Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Pinhead, and Chucky. Is it party time or dying time?
Dying time. I could fend off Jason, Michael, Freddy, and Pinhead, but Chucky pushes it over the top. Avenge me.
I've always believed horror and humor are kissing cousins. You apparently share that opinion. Why do you think that lip-locking works so well?
A lot of perfectly innocent jokes involve really horrible things. (DOCTOR: "I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that you've got three days to live." PATIENT: "That's the good news? What's the bad news?" DOCTOR: "We've been trying to call you for the past two days.") Horror/comedy just takes that one step further.
Speaking of humor in horror, your Andrew Mayhem series is a hoot. The titles alone are ... um ... unique: Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary), Single White Psychopath Seeks Same, Casket for Sale (Only Used Once), Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to 'Shirley'). So, how much (if at all) of Andrew Mayhem is Jeff Strand?
Almost none. In fact, when I first created the character, the most important element to me was that he had two young children that he was responsible for when he was off doing dangerous things, and I don't have kids. The other key factor was that he was a guy in his thirties who didn't really know what he wanted to do with his life, which was never the case with me. I've always been laser-focused on the whole "I wanna be a writer!" thing. He's a fun character to write and I love the guy, but he's definitely not a stand-in for me.
Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam?
Yosemite Sam having a temper tantrum is one of the funniest things animation has ever produced.
What, in your opinion, was your "break-out" novel?
Pressure. I was worried about it at the time because I'd established myself as the horror/comedy guy and now I was publishing a "serious" novel. I thought readers might shout "Stick to the jokes, Funny-Boy!" But it ended up being my most popular book by far, and got me my first Bram Stoker Award nomination and my first mass-market release. Dweller was my second "serious" novel, but some later books blurred the line to the point where I wasn't sure how to categorize them.
Do you work from an outline or just wing it?
I prefer to mostly wing it with a very loose plan for where things are headed. I don't always have a choice; novels like Dweller, Wolf Hunt, and The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever, which were written for "big" publishing houses, were outlined beforehand because the editors made me do it before they would give me any money. But, in general, I like to know the ending and a few steps along the way while leaving myself open to whatever ideas pop up as I'm writing.
Jean-Claude Van Damme or Chuck Norris?
Who would I invite over for cookies and tea? Van Damme, I guess.
What has been your greatest challenge as a freelance writer?
I'm lucky enough to do this full time, but no one book generates enough income that I can ever sit back and relax. As soon as I finish a book, the financial clock starts ticking again and I need to dive into the next one. It would be nice to say, "Woo-hoo! I just finished a novel! Time to celebrate with a couple days of video games and Netflix!" but ... nope.
If you could go back in time and start over, what would you have done differently?
Hmmm. I have to weigh the amount of fun I had playing with my Star Wars figures versus how much they'd be worth if I'd kept them in their original packaging. I had Boba Fett, dude! You know what, I have too many fond memories of creating adventures for those guys. So I guess I'd still play with my Star Wars figures. Beyond that...it's tough to say which forks in the road would've led to a better outcome.
The Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers?
I have nothing against the Three Stooges, but Marx Brothers all the way. As a kid, I'm not sure there was a movie I watched more times than Animal Crackers.
Maybe you deem this a cliché, but do you see your work as cathartic—for yourself and your readers?
For me, no, there's not much in the way of exorcising of personal demons in my work. Even in the rare occasions when I pull from a real-life event (the infamous "contact lens" scene in Sick House) it's not really cathartic. On the readers' side, I do sometimes get fan mail from people who say that my books helped them get through a tough time—usually because of the entertainment value, but occasionally they'll point to a specific element. But "writing as therapy" doesn't really apply to me.
Beyond adult horror, you've written YA novels. Do you find it difficult to shift gears, or do you just tap your inner child?
I find it very easy to shift gears. Part of what keeps writers' block away for me is being able to work on different types of projects at the same time. In my adult horror, I'll write from the perspective of a depressed widower, a devoted mother you don't want to mess with, a savage serial killer, a socially inept customer service representative, etc. so it's not jarring at all to switch to a teenage boy.
Clowns. Werewolves. Barbecued clowns. What's the next trope you want to skewer?
Clowns again? I've obviously got the short story collection Dead Clown Barbecue, and a clown costume plays a key role in my novel Blister, and in the four-author collaboration Draculas, I was responsible for the sections from the POV of Benny the (Vampire) Clown. But I've never done an all-out scary clown novel. I've got the title but somebody will swipe it if I blab it here. It's also time for me to tackle a giant monster novel.
You've written a ton of short stories. Your short story "The Fierce Stabbing and Subsequent Post-Death Vengeance of Scooter Brown" is included in the Smart Rhino Publications anthology A Plague of Shadows. What do you find most satisfying about writing short fiction?
I can do experimental things with the narrative that I wouldn't want to do at novel-length. "Rough Draft," for example, is a story where the real story is in the side notes that the (fictional) author is making to himself. The joke in "Deformed Son" is the completely unsatisfying nature of the big reveal. In short stories, I can be darker, weirder, and sillier, because I only have to carry the premise through a few pages instead of 300. Oh, I still prefer writing novels, but I think some of my strongest work is in short story form.
What advice would you offer writers concerning marketing their books?
Since social media plays such a large role these days, it's important to provide content beyond "Buy my book!" If you follow me on Twitter, you'll certainly see "Buy my book!" but there are far fewer of those than jokes that have nothing to do with self-promotion. Obviously there are writers who reach a success level where people are following them just to hear book news, but those writers aren't getting marketing advice from an interview with somebody like me.
I agree, online self-promotion should go beyond "Buy my book." It would be nice to see more subtlety in the marketing. On another note, what's your advice for working with editors?
Don't be precious about your material. Sometimes you'll agree with the changes and sometimes you won't, but it's important to choose your battles. In my novel Stranger Things Have Happened, I was asked to cut out an entire chapter, and almost all the jokes out of another. I cringed and shed a metaphorical tear as I complied, but after I had some distance from the heartbreak, I agreed that, yes, this was the right choice. The editor isn't always right (I've been the victim of "This is how I'd write the book!") but neither is the author.
When it comes to writing, what's on your bucket list?
I'd love to write an epic. A big-ass, 1000+ page doorstop of a novel. If somebody wants to cover my living expenses for a couple of years, I'll get right on it.
One last question, just for fun. What is the most stupendously stupid horror movie you're ashamed to admit you enjoyed?
In the crowd I hang with, there's no shame in enjoying a stupid horror movie!
True. I have a strange fondness for Basket Case—the stop-animation alone is truly horrendous and hilarious!
Thanks, Jeff. Looking forward to your next book!
Check out Jeff's story, "The Fierce Stabbing and Subsequent Post-Death Vengeance of Scooter Brown," in Smart Rhino's A Plague of Shadows: A Written Remains Anthology.
(This interview was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Suspense Magazine.)