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Interview with BETTER WEIRD editor, Paul F. Olson

Diabolique’s Sheila M. Merritt had the opportunity to interview author-editor Paul F. Olson about a subject close to his heart: Better Weird, a tribute anthology in memory of David B. Silva, who died in March 2013. Silva was a writer and editor, whose magazine The Horror Show, transformed the landscape of horror fiction. The exchange with Olson about the upcoming e-book from Cemetery Dance Publications rendered insightful thoughts and tender musings.

Paul Head A

Author/Editor Paul F. Olson

Diabolique: For those who are unfamiliar with the name of David B. Silva, would you briefly explain his contribution to the horror field?

Paul F. Olson: Obviously, it’s impossible to talk about Dave without talking about his magazine, The Horror Show. That magazine was one of the brightest lights in one of horror’s brightest decades, the 1980s. Back then, the genre was booming on every front, and right in the middle of it was this incredible little magazine, a small-press quarterly published by one guy working all alone out of his home in the mountains. The Horror Show broke new ground, issue after issue, for nine years. Later on, Dave co-edited and eventually solo-edited the Hellnotes newsletter, and then the Hellnotes web site. But it’s The Horror Show that people always think of first when they hear Dave’s name. Its reach and impact were immeasurable. If it was the only thing he had ever done, he would still be remembered as a legend. But he was also a mentor, friend, and advisor to many in the field, a collaborator on several noteworthy projects, and an incredible writer – of novels, yes, but particularly of short fiction. He wrote dozens of stories, almost every one a gem, and in that mix was a handful of tales that will stand the test of time. They’re the kind of stories that take your breath away, and they will still be remembered and reprinted long after most of us are gone and forgotten.

Diabolique: Would you please expound on what you mean by “immeasurable” impact?

Olson: How much time do we have?

Dave and his magazine launched … I don’t know how many careers. Dozens, certainly. The list of writers who sold their first stories to The Horror Show is pretty amazing, like a Who’s Who of horror, and a few of them are included in this anthology. In almost every issue, he introduced readers to somebody new, and in many cases, those writers are folks we’re still reading today, three decades later. That’s an impressive feat. Dave also published a lot of the biggest names in the genre – McCammon, Koontz, Lansdale. There was always somebody noteworthy in there. He knew how to mix it up perfectly, balancing the big-time authors with what he called the “rising stars.” He published the perfect blend of fiction, news, interviews, and columns. He also used the magazine to be a champion of the genre, supporting small presses and new books. He featured incredible artists on the covers and inside. It was a quality product, and even more important, it was darn good reading.

The growth of The Horror Show is inspiring to think about. The first issue was produced in a cheap newspaper-style format (and I do mean cheap; five years later, when you picked up a copy, the ink still came off on your hands), with all of the material written by Dave and a couple of his friends. They used a mix of their own names and pseudonyms, so that nobody would realize it was really just a vanity project. With no marketing or distribution, they sold only a few copies, and shortly afterward all of the friends drifted away, on to other hobbies and interests. Dave could have walked away too, but he decided to stick with it. He didn’t know anything about the business, but he taught himself everything from the ground up. And the magazine grew fast. Within a few years his print runs had grown into the thousands, the covers went from black-and-white to two-color to four-color, and in an era where there were literally hundreds of small-press genre magazines being produced, The Horror Show was one of the only ones you could actually find on the racks at newsstands and chain bookstores. I mean, just imagine that. Imagine walking into your neighborhood mall, going into B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, and there was The Horror Show staring you in the face. Bear in mind, too, that Dave managed to accomplish all of this a few years before the advent of today’s sophisticated desktop publishing systems. He created everything using a very early personal computer, primitive word-processing software that allowed him to see nothing but green type floating on a black screen, and a first-generation laser printer. He was like Matthew Broderick in War Games, only instead of hacking into NORAD, he was publishing stories by Bentley Little and Brian Hodge and Poppy Z. Brite and Dean Koontz.

Obviously, that success did not go unnoticed. Not only did everyone want to be published in The Horror Show, lots of people wanted to create something just like it. If you were already publishing a small-press magazine, you looked at The Horror Show and felt motivated to improve. And if you were new to the game, just thinking about jumping in, you suddenly had a model to follow. You wanted to do something as good as The Horror Show. A lot of would-be publishers sought out Dave, wanting to pick his brain for suggestions and advice, and he answered a million questions from all of them. I was one of those guys, and with Dave’s guidance I went on to create a non-fiction magazine called Horrorstruck. Another one was Rich Chizmar, who leaned heavily on Dave while giving birth to Cemetery Dance. We weren’t the only ones. There were lots of others.

It’s no exaggeration to say that The Horror Show changed the face of small-press publishing in the 1980s. It gave a measurable boost in ambition and quality to the entire field, and it had a tangible influence on an entire generation of writers and publishers.

Diabolique: Who came up with the concept of the tribute anthology?

Olson: Rich Chizmar and Brian Freeman of Cemetery Dance approached me shortly after Dave died. They said they were going to put together a tribute anthology and asked if I would be interested in co-editing the book. I thought about it for, oh, two and a half seconds before saying yes. Dave and I were friends for 30 years and worked together on a number of projects. Because of that, I was asked to contribute brief tributes to several magazines and web sites after he died. That process was everything you might imagine: tremendously sad, but also comforting, healing. At the same time, though, it seemed somewhat inadequate. At first I didn’t know what to say, and then I felt that I wasn’t saying enough, or saying it in the right way. Doing a tribute to Dave in book form seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally do things right, to honor his memory properly. I was incredibly moved and honored that Rich and Brian asked me to participate.

The three of us exchanged about a hundred e-mails over the course of the first few days, ironing out the concept of the book. What we came up with is almost exactly what the anthology came to be: a small but wide-ranging collection of writers honoring Dave’s memory, each one contributing a story – some new, some reprints – and a brief tribute essay.

BetterWeird-cvr-lowres-2Diabolique: How were the contributors to Better Weird selected?

Olson: We knew we couldn’t include stories from everybody Dave had worked with or touched. A book like that would have been a thousand pages long – and that would have been just the first volume. We also didn’t want to rehash, in either author selection or content, Dave’s own anthology, The Definitive Best of the Horror Show, which was a groundbreaking work and deserves to stand on its own. So we tried to come up with a much smaller but representative list of writers: those who Dave published for the first time, those he influenced as either an editor or a writer, those who were too young to be published in The Horror Show but were inspired by the magazine during their formative years, and those who collaborated with him. There’s a lot of overlap in those categories, by the way. We came up with an initial list, narrowed it down just a bit to get to a reasonable number, and sent out invitations. Gratifyingly, almost everyone said yes – most of them within a few minutes of receiving the invite. There were one or two who were unable to take part, and I can tell you they were absolutely heartbroken to say no. Their notes of apology literally moved me to tears.

I’m really proud of the final line-up we put together: Kealan Patrick Burke, Brian Hodge, Joe R. Lansdale, Robert R. McCammon, Bentley Little, Elizabeth Massie, Brian Keene, Steve Rasnic Tem, Billie Sue Mosiman, Kathryn Ptacek, Thomas F. Monteleone, Gary Raisor, Yvonne Navarro, Robert Swartwood, G. Wayne Miller, and the late J.F. Gonzalez. I have a story in there, too, and I also contributed the introduction. It’s humbling to be included in a roster of greats like that.

Diabolique: Better Weird is a great title for a horror anthology, but it’s especially so in this case. Explain why.

Olson: Anyone who ever read an issue of The Horror Show will recognize it immediately. “Better weird than plastic” was Dave’s motto, his catchphrase. He used it at the beginning of every issue. He also used it in his personal life, including as the signature on almost every letter and e-mail he ever wrote. It was a part of him. It was him. It’s impossible to think about Dave without thinking of that phrase, so naturally, when it came time to select a title for the book, it took all of maybe five minutes for “Better Weird” to pop into my head. It seemed the perfect way to sum up everything: the man, his philosophy, his work. And besides, for those of us in this business, it’s true. Things really are better when they’re weird.

If I could digress for a minute to a personal memory…Back in The Horror Show days, I was living in the Chicago area, and Dave came to visit on several occasions. I had a friend who managed a B. Dalton store, one of the freestanding shops, a separate building that wasn’t attached to a mall or shopping center. It even had its own marquee out along the highway. My friend was a fan of Dave’s magazine, and before one of his visits, she put up a message on the marquee: “Better Weird Than Plastic, Right Dave?” He was so thrilled and touched to see that. He even took a picture and ran it in his next issue.

Diabolique: Silva’s death in 2013 prompted a flood of grief in the horror community.  What was it about him as a writer, an editor, and a person that generated so much emotion at his passing?

Olson: It’s hard for me to think of anyone who was as shy as Dave, as private as Dave, as reclusive as Dave, who was also as beloved as Dave. Often when one of the greats in our genre passes, we hear stories about how outgoing and gregarious they were – big and bold, jolly, the center of attention at every writers’ workshop and convention. That wasn’t Dave. He hated the limelight. He hated crowds. He didn’t even like small groups. He seldom spoke unless spoken to. He went to fewer than five conventions in his entire life, and those he only attended under duress. But he was also, strangely, a people person. He just preferred things to be one-on-one instead of in groups, and even the one-on-ones he preferred to do by phone or e-mail, not face-to-face. Dave wore a lot of hats over the years. Publisher of The Horror Show; writer; editor; anthologist; web and marketing guy; and, most recently, publisher of Hellnotes. During the 30 years that I knew him, he was always busy with one of those things or another, usually with several of them simultaneously. But he still managed to be kind and giving, thoughtful, generous with his time. He always put others’ needs ahead of his own. No matter what he was working on, how big the project or how tight the deadline, he would put it aside in a second if somebody wrote or called to ask his advice. He would talk to you for hours, listening to your ideas, sharing his own. He was an insightful critic and a fearless editor, and he was never afraid to point out flaws in your work or reject something that wasn’t up to snuff. But he did it with such care and compassion, such warmth and kindness, that you couldn’t help but grow from his critiques. He was something of a magician, really, someone who could be both brutally honest and encouraging at the same time. You could toss out the world’s most harebrained idea, and he would tell you exactly what was wrong with it, then work with you to fix the problems and turn it into something wonderful. He was giving with his talent. Need a hand with a project, a short story on short notice? No problem; he’d come through. He’d develop a great idea and then give it away without a second thought – Why don’t you write it? he’d say. He’d answer endless questions from fans and writers and publishers and people trying to break into the field, and never once make them feel that they were bothering him or wasting his time. Most of all, he treated everyone with dignity. With Dave, the work was always the most important thing, but he never made you feel that way. When he talked to you, you became the center of the universe. He wasn’t talking to just a writer or an artist or a publisher but to a real three-dimensional person, a fellow human being. He took an interest in you, your personal life, your feelings and problems, your concerns.

You combine all of those qualities with a man whose work also touched a generation of writers and fans, and who was taken from us suddenly, far too young, and it’s no wonder we were devastated.

Diabolique: Better Weird is presently available in e-book format from Cemetery Dance Publications. Will there eventually be a print edition?

Olson: Absolutely. From our first conversations about the project, the plan was always “e-book first, print to follow.” At the moment, I believe the plans are for the print edition to be released later this year.

Diabolique: In addition to being one of the editors of Better Weird, you also contributed a story to the anthology. Could you tell us a little about the story, and what’s up next for you, fiction-wise?

Olson: Let me just say that being given the chance not only to co-edit Better Weird but to contribute a story was one of the biggest honors of my professional life. I really tried my best to memorialize Dave with my contribution. In addition to trying to represent Dave Silva, the man and the writer, I set the tale in his own fictional town of Kingston Mills, using locations that he had created. Streets, business names, they’re all Dave’s. It was the first time I’d ever worked in another writer’s universe. It was a challenge and a treat, and I’m grateful I had the opportunity.

In the months ahead, I have a short story collection called Whispered Echoes forthcoming from Cemetery Dance – eleven old tales and a new novella. As for new work, I’m in an odd phase right now. I’m working on three different projects at the same time. Two horror novels and something that’s, well, not horror. All three are progressing at about the same rate, however none is under contract at the moment, so it remains to be seen which of the books will reach the finish line first.

Better Weird is scheduled to be available for purchase this month

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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