Monday, January 23, 2012

Oh the Horror... of Robert Freese

Robert Freese is one of the guys you only have to meet once, and you'll immediately know about all he holds dear. Give him a few minutes more, and you'll know not only the name of his favorite books and movies, but also why they're his favorites and what he was doing and whom he was with when he first read or watched them.

I met Rob during a two-day traveling comic book and horror convention in Alabama a few years back and we really hit it off. He's not only a fantastic horror author, but also a walking encyclopedia of all things horror, from mainstream to indie to b-movie to schlock. (Verify the dates listed below in the interview if you don't believe me.)

I hadn't heard about his new work in a few months, and I thought it was a good time to get back in touch and share my love of all things Rob Freese with you.

Tell us a little about yourself and where readers can find out more about you and your work?

L-R: Bobby Nash, Rob Freese, Sean Taylor
I've been writing for- wow!- eighteen years. Time flies! My first published article appeared in Femme Fatales Magazine, which was a successful sister publication of the late Cinefantastique, which was one of the all time great genre film magazines. I don't know that my contribution was all that fantastic, but it was a very exciting time.

To be honest, it was amazing. The dream of writing, of being published - when that came true I felt like I was ten feet taller and that I could accomplish anything. It gave me confidence I never had before. In fact, the week I received my copies I was so flushed with confidence and success that I asked my girlfriend to marry me. (She said yes!)

Soon after I had my first piece of short fiction published in Scream Queens Illustrated. When I read that story today my stomach flops and I feel sick. It is horrible. But that's good. You should be able to look back and say your first story is horrible. That means you've grown as a writer. It was an important step if only because the magazine was edited by John Russo, who is one of my all time favorite horror authors, having penned one of the greatest zombie novels ever written, Return of the Living Dead (1978), as well as the co-scripting the greatest zombie movie ever made, Night of the Living Dead (1968). This was another huge confidence booster.

Since then I've never looked back. I've contributed to dozens of film magazines in various capacities. I've written well over a hundred short stories that have appeared in different print and on-line magazines and anthologies. There have been a couple short story collections of my work published, as well as my novella The Santa Thing and my first novel, Bijou of the Dead. The novella and novel, as well as the paranormal book I co-wrote with Paul Cagle, Paranormal Journeys, my short story collection Shivers and many recent anthologies are available through Amazon in print and Kindle editions. I have a very good publisher, StoneGarden.net, and they make my books available in print and electronic editions. This year they will be releasing my horror collection 13 Frights. I also contribute regularly to The Phantom of the Movies' Videoscope Magazine, where I write reviews and interviews, and Scary Monsters Magazine, where I keep the drive-in alive with my regular column "The Cosmic Drive-in". Although it has not been updated in a while, readers can visit me at my website www.robertfreese.com. 

What started your fascination with horror and with writing horror in particular?

Growing up I loved watching horror movies. One of the first big scares in my life came from that classic Steve McQueen flick The Blob. I saw it on Shock Theater and was utterly terrified by it. Later, VCRs became the rage and we would rent five or six movies over the weekend and I overdosed on horror flicks. This was the early eighties, so the video shelves were full of slasher movies, Italian zombie flicks and all those great American International Pictures movies from the 60's and 70's. I watched as many as I could get my hands on.

Subsequently, I was always a reader. I read a lot of comics then moved on to Fangoria Magazine and the like. Fangoria turned me on to many writers. When I was a teenager I picked up a copy of Robert Bloch's Psycho II, which is an awesome book and has nothing to do with the movie. It was the first book that kept me up all night reading. I couldn't put it down until I got to the end. When I was finished with it I was exhausted. Not just from lack of sleep but from the emotional roller coaster ride I'd been on while reading it. It was that influence that would eventually put me on the path of writing horror fiction.

Why the fascination with zombies? What makes them such fertile story ground for you?

Well, I don't find zombies themselves all that fascinating. Yes, the idea of your loved ones coming back to life as mindless eating machines is chilling, but it's a cliche now.

What I find fascinating is that zombies can be used as a force of nature, like a tornado or flood.

When I was writing Bijou of the Dead, friends would tell me that if I wasn't making it "Romero-esque" it wouldn't work. "You've got to shoot the zombies in the head. You have to have guns. They have to eat people." My setting is an old grindhouse movie theater. Who would have guns there? It's ridiculous. Also, why do zombies always "die" when they're shot in the head? They're already dead. I subscribe to Dan O'Bannon's notion from his film Return of the Living Dead (1985), which was entirely different from Russo's novel, that once you're dead, you're dead. You have to destroy the living dead completely, and fire works.

Also, I wanted to make my zombies something different. My zombies are used in a revenge plot, they are resurrected by an ancient rite, almost like in that old AIP drive-in movie Sugar Hill (1974). The zombies in my story have a purpose. They are awakened to destroy. They use tools. They are the ones using weapons. They will use their hands and teeth to tear someone to pieces, but they are not eating their victims. Every part of them is alive. My zombies are on a mission and you're not going to survive their attack. Period. I have them doing all kinds of crazy things and by the novel's end the reader should know that no "Zombie Survival Guide" is going to help them. I tried to make my story different, yet, I think, it is very "Romero-esque."

I think many fans miss the point of Romero's zombie films. They are not about the zombies, they are about the human beings dealing with the zombies. The zombies in his films are a force of nature. You can take them out of the story and substitute them with a flood and the characters would still accelerate the story. I put everything into creating real characters the reader can care about and for the most part I think I succeeded.

I've heard from many readers around the world that really connected with Bijou and that makes me very happy. Many women connect with the main female character and have commented that they like reading strong female characters. (That character was easy to write because I based her on my wife.) One reader said I basically "ruined" the book once I introduced the zombies. He said he was just enjoying the characters and following them on their journey to this old movie theater. That might sound like a put-down but I thought it was the highest compliment that could be paid.

The bottom line is this: if you make interesting characters the reader cares about, you can do whatever you want with your zombies. But they should always be secondary to the characters. 

Which horror (and other) writers inspire you the most?

The two gentlemen I've already mentioned, Robert Bloch and John Russo, have been huge influences. Also to that list you can add Richard Matheson, Joe R. Lansdale, Gary Brandner, Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Richard Laymon, Shaun Hutson and Jack Ketchum. I've been reading a lot of Hard Case Crime novels the last couple years and guys like Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins and Donald Westlake are also inspiring the direction some of my current writings are taking.

Also, because I write for film magazines, guys like Chas. Balun, Tim Ferrante, John McCarty, John Stanley, Joe Kane and Joe Bob Briggs have also had big influences on me. Whenever I read their magazine articles or film reviews, I knew they were going to take me on a ride that other journalists and reviewers couldn't take me on.

The first movie reviews I ever read with explicit language used to describe the films (usually the bad ones) were written by Chas. Balun. Balun had a style all his own and he got away with what he wrote beautifully. Today, with the Internet, you've got literally hundreds- if not thousands- of film "reviewers" using all kinds of foul language and it just comes across as ignorant and sloppy. (Proving there will only ever be one Chas. Balun!) McCarty's Splatter Movies tome and Stanley's Creature Feature Movie Guide were invaluable movie references decades before the Internet. And nobody writes a film review like Joe Bob. His classic reviews, where he would tell a little story before the review, and that little story would upset hundreds of people because they 'didn't get it' and they would in turn cancel their newspaper subscriptions- nobody does that anymore. That kind of writing has gone from satire to plain and simple shock for shock's sake. So, all these writers, and so many more, inspire every word I write.
  
Which horror films inspire you to write?

The good ones. There are so many. I'm inspired by everyone from Al Adamson to Roger Corman. Romero, obviously. Flicks by William Castle, Lloyd Kaufman, Jack Starrett, H.G. Lewis, John Landis, Jeff Leiberman, Ted Mikels, Frank Henenlotter, David Friedman, there are dozens of these guys who get my creative juices flowing. Movies written by Dan O'Bannon (like Alien and Dead & Buried - one of the most underrated zombie films in history) and Charles Edward Pogue (Psycho III, The Fly '86) get me excited to sit down and write. In fact, Psycho III had a big influence on Bijou. I loved how Pogue had all his characters intermingle in the film's early scenes, before they all come together at The Bates Motel. I did that in Bijou, connecting all these different characters until they all came together at the Bradbury Theater. I love Tarantino movies - he's a film geek like me, so I know I'm going to get most of the in-jokes in his films and I do a lot of that in my writing. I love movies by John Carpenter, Joe Dante and Fred Dekker, who made the ultimate horror geek flick, Night of the Creeps.

Weird movies inspire me too. I love old kung fu movies and biker flicks and sometimes I'll get a nugget of an idea from watching one of those flicks, even though it's not obvious from the story that is finally written that that is where the inspiration came from. Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Joe D'Amato, Michele Soavi, Antonio Margheriti, Mario Bava, Lamberto Bava- I could do this all day. I also find inspiration in the marketing of these films. I love the the Sam Sherman trailers for stuff like Horror of the Blood Monsters and Mad Doctor of Blood Island and all the old drive-in gimmicks like Up-Chuck Cups and Rasputin beards. When I put out my novella The Drive-in that Dripped Blood, on the back I put the line "To avoid fainting, keep repeating, 'It's only a book! It's only a book! It's only a book!'" Obviously, that's taken from the classic ad for the Wes Craven flick The Last House on the Left. I am greatly influenced by cinema and I think my writing reflects that. I've always believed books create a "movie" in the mind of the reader, and I want to give my readers all the visuals they need to enjoy my stories.

What would be your dream project?

Every project I work on is my dream project. My dream was to write and to be published and to have people read and enjoy my work. I have accomplished that. Every short story I write, every movie review I write, every interview I conduct with someone who has made a movie I've enjoyed, it's all part of the dream. How many people can say that? Sure, I would love to write that book that clicks and sells millions of copies and is made into a horrible Hollywood film - heck, I'd just like to make a living from writing - but the satisfaction I derive from my writing is greater than the paycheck. Yes, it's easier to pay the rent with actual money than satisfaction, but I have a job that enables me to write what I want without having to take on projects I don't want to work on just to pay the bills.

Beyond that, though, I would really like to write something different as a memorial to my late wife, Frances. We had a mutual love for everything 80's. I would like to write a John Hughes kind of love story in her memory. It would be funny and sweet like the best of his 80's films that we both loved. I've got the basic story idea. It will take place in a video rental emporium, as that is where we first met so many years ago. I would love to write this story - no horror, no zombies, no slashers - just simple and sweet, for the woman who had such an impact on my life and was, and still is, such an inspiration to me.

If you have any former project to do over to make it better, which one would it be, and what would you do?

I'd love to re-write everything I've written. I'm a better writer today than I was yesterday. I'll be even better tomorrow. But you can't live in the past and, basically, you can't make anything perfect. When I compile short story collections I go back and try to give all the stories a nice shine before sending the manuscript off to the editor and publisher. I originally self-published Bijou of the Dead and, obviously, there were a lot of mistakes in it. I was thrilled when StoneGarden.net picked it up because it gave me a chance to work with an editor and correct many of them. Unfortunately, a couple still slipped by and they drive me crazy. But readers seem to be forgiving when they enjoy the story. I just try to do the best job I can and then I release the material out into the world. Once it is available it is not really mine anymore, it belongs to the reader.

Any other upcoming projects you would like to plug?

Halloween 2012 will see the release of 13 Frights. That will be available in print and Kindle editions. I'm excited about that. I have an open invitation from one publisher to collect my VideoScope interviews in one book and I've gotten enough now that I am slowly putting that together. I continue to work for the magazines, trying to unearth the video gems for readers and interviewing the people who make the films I enjoy. I am working with co-writers on two projects: with Paul Cagle on another Paranormal Journeys book and with Paul Mcvay on a film-related book. I am also working on various shorts to submit to different anthologies - just trying to keep busy.

Thanks for taking the time to share with us, Rob. Continued success in your endeavors, my friend!