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Interview: Paul F. Olson on “The Night Prophets”

"Night Prophets"

Horror author Paul F. Olson makes a welcome return to the genre with the expanded “ultimate” e-book edition of his 1989 novel The Night Prophets.  Diabolique, via Sheila M. Merritt, had the opportunity to chat with Paul about The Night Prophets, and other topics pertaining to the horror field and writing.

DIABOLIQUE: Your vampire novel The Night Prophets was originally published in paperback by New American Library in 1989.  How does the new expanded e-book version differ from the print publication, and what instigated the format change?

PAUL F. OLSON: The first difference shows up immediately, right on the front cover of the book. When I wrote the novel, I called it The Night Prophets, but NAL decided to drop The, for a reason I was never privy to and still don’t understand to this day. Over the years, I got used to thinking of it as Night Prophets instead of The Night Prophets, but I still took perverse pleasure in being able to restore that one little word for this new “ultimate edition” of the book.

Much more important, the new e-book edition is substantially longer than the original paperback. It restores … I’m not sure … around 50,000 words, maybe more, that were cut for first publication. I explain some of this in the introduction to the new edition, but basically, it was the age-old conflict between the kind of book I wanted to write and the kind of book NAL wanted to publish. I’m a fan of big, bold novels, sprawling tales that take their time in revealing all their secrets and cover a lot of ground in the process, books full of background and detail and color — little bits of color and big, garish splashes of color. That’s the kind of book I tried to write. My editor at NAL, the great John Silbersack, understood that, and he liked the novel — liked it enough to buy it. But it wasn’t the kind of book he wanted to release. He wanted a much more streamlined story, a little potboiler that didn’t meander along the way but got from beginning to end in a mad dash. There was an economic factor, too. If they had published the book at its original length, they would have had to price it at $4.95, which was death for a first novel by an unknown writer back in 1989. They wanted to keep the price at $4.50, and to do that, the book had to be smaller. So he had me do some rewrites — a lot of rewrites. And he did a lot of cutting on his own. He also had me do a lot of … let’s call it rearranging. He had me move some later, more action-packed chapters up to the front of the book, replacing some of the more leisurely introductory material I had started with, which of course required even more rewriting. Timelines shifted. Everything became more compressed. And he fiddled a lot with the later chapters of the book, as well, dropping lots of scenes with the bad guys in favor of focusing almost solely on the good guys. There were other changes, too, made for reasons I can’t even remember anymore. For example, a couple of characters meet a different end in the paperback than in my original manuscript. I’m sure we discussed the reasons for those changes, and they probably made sense at the time. But I’ll be darned if I can recall what they were.

I didn’t agree to every change John wanted, but I agreed to most. I wasn’t really in a position to argue. And I understood what he was trying to do, even when I didn’t necessarily agree with it. In the end, it came out all right. The NAL version of Night Prophets was a good book, a book I was proud of then and still am. But I always had the feeling that it wasn’t quite my book. For a long time I dreamed of someday being able to publish it again, “complete and uncut,” the way I’d written it. Like most dreams, that one faded over the years, but it never vanished completely. Then suddenly, this past spring, through the wonders of the Internet, I met the writer and editor Karen Koehler. She’s the “K” in KHP Publishers, Inc. She raised the possibility of reissuing Night Prophets as an e-book. I countered with my crazy notion of restoring all of the cut and otherwise altered material. She loved the idea. And after that, it all came together almost ridiculously fast.

DIABOLIQUE: How difficult was it to re-integrate the excised content from the truncated print edition back into the story as you had originally written it?

OLSON: It was time-consuming, and painstaking, but not really difficult. I worked mostly off my original manuscript of the book, which NAL had been kind enough to return to me after the paperback was published. I had the manuscript on one side, the paperback on the other, and I sort of bounced back and forth between the two. If someone had been watching me, I would have looked like a spectator at a tennis match.

The process was mostly smooth. Restoring all of the cut material and putting everything back in its original order was the easy part. It was harder when I came to the smaller changes, the line-edits and other tweaks that NAL had made. When I hit those points, I would stop and weigh the two versions side by side to see which was best. Usually, I could decide fairly easily, but there were a few times I consulted with Karen and asked her opinion, because I was stumped and because … well, she’s a lot smarter than I am. I’d guess that I stuck with my original version about ninety-five percent of the time. That was the intent of this whole project, after all. There were a few places, though, where the NAL version was so clearly superior that I opted for that. There were other spots where I created a sort of hybrid text — a little bit of Paul, a little bit of NAL. And then there were a very, very few places where I dumped both versions and wrote something new. It was kind of like putting a puzzle together. A fun process. Gratifying.

DIABOLIQUE: In the 1980s there was a deluge of horror fiction saturating the market.  Was that a blessing or a curse for Night Prophets at the time.

OLSON: Well, it was certainly a blessing in that it was easier for a vampire novel to catch the interest of my agent, and for her to catch the interest of a publisher, and for the publisher to buy that novel and put it out. But by 1989 the boom was starting to … not go bust, exactly, not yet. But the momentum was definitely beginning to falter. Readers were starting to grow weary. Publishers were starting to get nervous.

A bigger problem for me is that The Night Prophets is essentially an old-fashioned sort of horror tale and it came out at a time that horror’s new wave was surging. It was the age of the splatterpunks and drastic revisions to all the genre’s old standbys — vampires perhaps most of all. That contrasted pretty dramatically with what I had written. I had deliberately set out to write about traditional vampires. I wanted moonlit graveyards and creaking coffins, holy water and stakes in the heart and all that great stuff. But writers were taking horror away from that and pushing it in new directions, and the readers were gobbling it up. I should know. I was one of them. But in the process, my book got lost. Even NAL’s interest waned. When they bought the book, there was talk of it being a featured title with a huge print run and a big advertising push. By the time it came out, some seventeen or eighteen months later, the market had changed and NAL had gone with it, throwing their weight behind some exciting new wave stuff they had acquired in the meantime and allowing Night Prophets to come out without fanfare, linger for thirty days or so on the shelves, and then vanish. It wasn’t exactly bad luck on my part, but it was certainly bad timing.

DIABOLIQUE: The popularity of vampire novels is secure but, at present, romantic bloodsuckers are dominating the scene.  If forced to pitch your decidedly unromantic take on vampires to fans of Twilight, how would you do so?

OLSON: I’m not sure I could sell a Twilight fan on my unabashedly traditional approach. “Come see a real vampire?” “Before there was sparkle there was darkness?” Or how about, “My vampires really suck?” As you can tell, I’d never make it in the advertising business.

I should be grateful that you’ve given me an opportunity to bash Twilight, but I’ll pass. It’s certainly not my cup of tea, or blood, or whatever. But I’m just happy to see people reading. If sparkly vampires get their noses into the pages of a book or up against the screen of an e-reader, that’s fine by me. Read that stuff, and maybe someday they’ll dig a little deeper and find mine. When I see somebody reading a Twilight novel, my reaction is the same as if I see them reading Shakespeare or Nabokov. I get all warm and fuzzy inside.

DIABOLIQUE: You’ve edited a horror magazine and co-edited anthologies in the genre.  What insights did your skills as an editor bring to your fiction writing, and vice-versa?

OLSON: That’s a tough question to answer, because it forces me to be analytical about what I do in a way that I usually avoid. I prefer not to look too closely at the mechanics of my work, as either a writer or an editor, because it takes some of the magic away and risks ruining it completely. But obviously there is a back-and-forth between the two. As an editor, you are exposed to a lot of work, great, good, passable, and just plain awful. You start to recognize all the things that work and, probably more important, the things that don’t work. Pretty quickly you learn to spot all the bad mistakes that bad writers make, and that helps you spot them more easily and eliminate them in your own work. You can also use it to cheer yourself up. On the days that all you’re reading is dreck, you can feel better just by telling yourself that you’re not really suffering, you’re learning. On the plus side, you also soak up the good. You have a lot of those humbling, awe-inspiring moments that a writer or editor gets when confronted by outstanding work. You have a lot of those “How did he do that?” moments, and if you’re lucky, you can actually figure out the answer. If you’re lucky. With the great ones, though, you’re sometimes never quite sure how they pulled it off. But you soak it up anyway, and with luck, some of it comes back out when you sit down at the keyboard to work on your own stories. There’s no such thing as being exposed to too much great writing. It’s the best teacher and the most powerful motivator a writer can have.

DIABOLIQUE: The literary equivalent of boxers or briefs:  print or e-books?  With The Night Prophets you’ve had it both ways.  What are the pros and cons of each format that specifically apply to the different versions of this novel?

OLSON: Honestly, I think I’m too new to the e-book game to properly answer that question. I self-published my dark suspense novel Alexander’s Song as an e-book in 2012, but never quite figured out how to sell it. And The Night Prophets is still a newborn babe in the e-book world.

I’m pretty sure that every writer — every writer I know, at any rate — would love to have a printed copy of his or her book. They’d love to walk into Barnes and Noble or their corner bookstore — assuming they still have a corner bookstore — and see it on the shelf. They’d love to inscribe copies and give them to friends and relatives. They’d enjoy getting on the subway and seeing someone reading it. They’d love to be able to pick it up and hold it, touch the cover, see their name in print, turn it over and read the back copy, open it up and smell the pages. Some younger e-book authors, and maybe some older ones too, will argue with that and tell you they don’t care, but I’m pretty sure they’re lying. I’ve had my books published in traditional format and as e-books, and I can tell you that there is no comparison.

But a lot of that is aesthetics, and if you can get past that, it’s impossible to ignore some of the advantages of digital publishing. The new edition of The Night Prophets was published barely sixty days after I first met Karen Koehler online and discussed the idea. For someone like me, whose work has languished with traditional publishers for eons before seeing print, that’s pretty nifty. The book can be as long as I need it to be, without driving up the cost to the reader. No more slashing thousands of words to keep the cover price at a palatable level. And best of all, the book is now out there forever. It won’t disappear from the shelves thirty or sixty days from now, its cover torn off and sent back to the publisher for credit, it’s body moldering in a dumpster out behind the mall. A reader ten years from now will be able to find it and buy it as easily as a reader today. We’re not ephemeral anymore. We’re eternal. That’s hard to beat.

DIABOLIQUE: Since the paperback was published in 1989 and you’ve retained the timeframe for the revised e-edition, what is it about that era that will resonate and appeal to today’s readers?

OLSON: One of the first discussions I had with Karen when we decided to do this project was whether to update the book or leave it as is, in its original era. I never doubted for a moment that I wanted it to stay in 1989. First of all, updating it would have been all but impossible. It’s so much a product of its time that I would have essentially had to throw the thing out and write a whole new novel. I was also afraid of trying to patch the changes in here and there. I didn’t want it to end up like Stephen King’s uncut version of The Stand, which restored a lot of great stuff that had been cut but also read like a weird mash-up — clearly a 1970s novel but with scattered 1990 references tossed in. I would have much rather read his original manuscript, just the way he wrote it. And that’s the way I felt about The Night Prophets, too. It’s either old or it’s new. It can’t be both. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s an old book, and trying to change that fact or hide it somehow would be dangerous — worse, pointless.

I think anyone who remembers the 1980s will get a kick out of the book. It’s fun to remember that time, not so very long ago, when research still required trekking around to libraries and offices and actually, you know, reading books, instead of querying Google and Wikipedia. It’s fun to remember a time when you didn’t carry a state of the art communications system in your back pocket and actually had to walk down the hall to find the nearest phone to call someone. At one point in the book, a character stands in awe of an incredible sight — a room full of people typing things into their PCs. My editor contends that we were all simpler and more naive back then. I’m not sure that’s true. But we were different, and it’s sort of a blast to look back and see just how different we were.

Readers who don’t remember the 1980s can enjoy it, too. They may read it and come to the same conclusion as my editor — boy, were they naive back then! They can laugh at us old-timers. That’s okay. We can take it. And looking at it another way,  The Night Prophets is a tiny relic from a pretty important age in the history of the horror field, a time when the genre was booming like no other time before or since. Despite the vast wealth of material that was published in the field back then, so little of it survives today, except in attic boxes and used bookstores. This is one little piece that survived. It’s a window into a lost age. I’m not sure what that’s worth exactly, but it has to be worth something. I feel very fortunate that my little relic has been dug up and resurrected, and I can only hope that horror fans of any age will feel fortunate to read it.

DIABOLIQUE: The restored edition of The Night Prophets marks your return to the horror field after a too long hiatus.  How does it feel to be back, and what future projects are in the works?

OLSON: It feels wonderful to be back. Of course, I never left the field completely. I remained a fan and reader and student of horror, even when I wasn’t writing it. I never stopped writing, either. I was just doing a different kind of writing. Seventeen years of hard labor as the editor/reporter for a weekly small-town newspaper. After that, coming back to horror — coming back to fiction, to imagination and creativity of any kind — is exciting and liberating and absolutely amazing.

I have a couple of other things coming out soon. First up is Better Weird, a tribute anthology to the late, great David B. Silva, my friend and collaborator of thirty years, who died in March. The book is being released by Cemetery Dance Publications and has stories — some new, some reprints — from some of horror’s biggest names, along with their personal remembrances of Dave. I was honored when the guys at CD asked me to co-edit the book, and even more honored that I got to write the introduction and submit a new story, “When the Heart Sings,” which I set in Dave’s fictional town of Kingston Mills. Then, early next year, I have another book coming from CD. It’s a short story collection called Whispered Echoes, containing eleven of my old tales and a brand new 36,000 word novella called “Bloodybones.” And for the future, I’m working on two novels, neither of which I can really discuss now. But I can give a hint about one of them: it might be of particular interest to fans of the novel we’ve been discussing in this interview.
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For more on Paul F. Olson, you can visit his official website or follow him on Twitter: @pfolson. You can currently pre-order the e-book version of The Night Prophets on Amazon. For future reporting on Olson, The Night Prophets and Better Weird, check back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com.

– By Sheila M. Merritt

About Sheila M. Merritt

Sheila Merritt wrote book reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. For several years, she had contributed reviews, articles and conducted interviews for the Hellnotes.com newsletter. She was friends with a British ghost hunter who happened to be the author of a biography of Boris Karloff. She’s had a brief and embarrassing conversation with Christopher Lee in a department store, but also had a much more relaxing exchange with director-writer Frank Darabont at a horror convention. She became enamored of horror films and dark fiction as a child. Mother didn't approve of them. The rest, as they say, is history.

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