When he's not stepping on his son's Lego creations, Jack Campbell Jr. writes horror and dark literary fiction in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in a variety of venues both online and in print. He possesses both a real Master's degree from Fort Hays State University and a fake Bachelor's degree from Miskatonic University. Jack is an unapologetic bibliophile and researches the history of Gothic writing. He is a member of the Horror Writer's Association and a lifetime member of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society.
Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I am a writer living in Lawrence, KS in the United States. I work for the University of Kansas. I have a seven year-old kid who prefers math to art and science books to comic books. It’s heart-breaking, at times. My girlfriend is a freelance editor, and a majority of our lives revolves around our writing calendar.
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I read a lot, but I consider that to be a part of writing. I am a big movie fan. I started out writing screenplays. My two favourite places on Earth are the movie theatre and the baseball stadium. I used to be a competitive Counter-Strike gamer and still play video games quite a bit. Between my day job and writing, there isn’t a lot of time for much else.
What’s your favourite food?
I live in the Kansas City area. We’ve got the best barbecue in the world. Give me some ribs and pulled pork with a side of cole slaw. Toss in a nice stout beer, and I will be happy.
Who would be on the soundtrack to your life story?
I love music. I played jazz drums throughout college and also play a few other instruments. Guitar, ukulele, piano, harmonica, jaw harp—none of them very well, just enough to have fun. I grew up in a rural Iowa town. The only radio stations played country music. I mostly heard country and church hymns growing up until my uncle gave me his cassette collection and introduced me to AC/DC’s Back in Black. I had a college radio show playing hardcore heavy metal when Slipknot started getting noticed. At the same time, I worked for a public radio station playing jazz and classical music. The sound track of my life is very eclectic, but I’ve always said that if I made my dream movie, Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails would compose the score.
Do you prefer the term Horror, Weird Fiction or Dark Fiction?
I consider them to be three different things, but dark fiction encompasses everything we do. Some writers I know, such as Richard Thomas, prefer the term neo-noir for dark writing that has influences in horror, crime fiction, and the Southern Gothic. Most people don’t consider Cormac McCarthy a horror writer, but The Road or Child of God are definitely horror novels. Weird fiction gets in to the supernatural and inhuman, but I don’t think horror should limit itself to that. I refer to myself as a dark fiction writer because I enjoy the diversity of the genre. That’s why my collection, All Manner of Dark Things, is so varied. Horror is about breaking rules, not giving in to them.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
Ray Bradbury is my creative inspiration. I don’t know that any man has ever loved writing as much as Bradbury. My generation of horror writers owes a lot to Stephen King. He’s still got it. His new work is great. I research Gothic horror and love writers like Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allen Poe. Cormac McCarthy is a genius. Dashielle Hammett has an amazing economy to his writing. I read every Nick Hornby book as soon as it comes out. I snag every Brian Keene book I can find. Chuck Palahniuk is fearless and will write about anything. This might be the hardest question that anyone can ask me. William Faulkner, James Joyce, Joyce Carol Oates, John Steinbeck, Shirley Jackson, Jack Ketchum. Lots of classics and lots of horror. I would give horrible award speeches because I would think I had to thank everyone by name.
What is your all-time favourite horror novel, and film?
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin sets the standard for us all. It’s such a simple idea, but Levin transcends it with themes of betrayal and paranoia. It produced a hell of a movie, too, but I think my favourite horror film is The Exorcist. That movie is unnerving from opening to closing. As a guy who grew up in a religious area, it terrified me.
If you could erase one horror cliché what would be your choice?
Running up the stairs to get away from the bad guy. Jack Ketchum pulls it off in Off Season, but the movies beaten that cliché to death.
Which fictional character would be you perfect neighbour, and who would be your nightmare neighbour?
The perfect neighbour would be hard to find in horror. Most good, quiet people don’t fare very well in our genre. I would take Rory from Doctor Who. I would say Amy Pond because Karen Gillam is extremely hot, but she has that problematic crack in her wall. Rory seems like a good guy to hang out with, and maybe he could bring Amy over from time to time. My nightmare would be Ruth from Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. I am a paranoid person anyway, and the idea of something like that happening on my watch, and maybe with my son there witnessing it, just horrifies me.
What do you think of the current state of the genre?
Peter Straub said in an interview that he doesn’t see much difference in the quality of writing between horror genre writers and literary fiction writers these days. I agree. I don’t think the quality of writing in our genre by our best writers has ever been better. Unfortunately, we are at somewhat of a down time for the popularity of horror fiction. That’s okay. It will swing back around again. When it does, I think history will remember a generation of writers who were excellent literary artists and produced a lot of great stuff. We are a supportive community. That support drives the entire genre forward.
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
Craig DiLouie’s Suffer the Children was the best horror book I read this year. As a father, it touched on some primal nerves. It was well-written, devastating, and everything a horror novel ought to be. Mrs. God by Peter Straub really disappointed me. I am a huge Straub fan. He and Ramsey Campbell are our greatest living ghost story writers. I could see what he was attempting, but he didn’t pull it off.
How would you describe your writing style?
Gritty hyperrealism. I deal with some pretty messed up scenarios. I like to anchor the weirdness with as much reality as possible. I am also a very literary writer. I spend a lot of time with my sentences on a base level and work really hard to make them as expressive as possible while keeping the language simple.
Are there any reviews of your work, positive or negative that have stayed with you?
My publications, up to this point, have all been short stories, so my favourite reviews have come from editors. I used some of the best as blurbs for my collection. My favourite called “Mercury Beach” a “beautiful, unusual love story.” I didn’t even see it as a love story until I read the acceptance letter.
What aspects of writing to do you find the most difficult?
It is so hard to find time to write all of the projects that I want to write. I work an average of fifty hours a week at my day job. I have my son fifty percent of the time. When all of that is taken care of, there isn’t much time left to be a writer. I have to get creative with my scheduling, but I manage. The process itself is relatively painless. I love the grind of writing. Sweating over a keyboard for hours doesn’t bother me. I come from a long line of mechanics, welders, and truck drivers. If I’m not working, I don’t know what to do with myself.
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?
Nothing is off limits to me. Jack Ketchum wrote an essay about not looking away, and I really bought in to that. If something really disturbs me, then that is just more of a reason to write about it. Some great books cross lines that other writers may not touch. Think of Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door or Nutting’s Tampa. They are extremely disturbing books, but very well done. I saw a publisher recently that does not restrict anything except for violence against dogs. I immediately thought of John Voss in Russo’s Empire Falls. His treatment of the dog is important for his characterization. I never show caution when I write. If I did, I wouldn’t write anything. I’d constantly worry about what my parents’ church thought of me.
If you could kill off any character from any other book who would you chose and how would they die?
I have never hated a character as much as I hated Ruth in The Girl Next Door. I would like to send her to the apartment of William Colton Hughes, the serial killer from Stephen Graham Jones’s The Least of My Scars. It would be a fitting end to have her wheeled out in one of his barrels.
What do you think makes a good story?
I believe setting+perspective+theme=story. Plot is just characters acting within a setting. The perspective character is everything. I’ve had stories that were improved by leaps and bounds just be changing the character who is telling it. If you have interesting characters in a good setting with a compelling perspective, you are most of the way there. But really, it is a matter of your audience. If they make a good connection with your characters and themes, then it is a good story.
How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning?
I don’t worry about names at all, which sounds odd because I agonize over adjectives. I tend to use the first name that comes to mind. Occasionally, I’ll find that a name has a strange connection, but it is all subconscious. My only rule is to avoid names with the same first letter.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
I started out trying to prove myself as a serious literary artist. I wrote a lot of pretentious stuff that was really complex and hard to read. I got in the way of my stories and drew all of the attention to myself. I didn’t understand the role of a writer. You need to get out of your story’s way. It’s like impressionist paintings. If you are drawing attention to every brushstroke, no one is going to see the lilies.
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
Books, and lots of them. I have in the neighbourhood of 2,000. I have a larger horror collection than some libraries I’ve been in. But don’t just get horror books, get every genre. Find non-fiction on every subject. I love writing books, and I have a ton of them. If I knew a writer just starting out, I would give them Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. That book sent me running to a keyboard, ready to take on the world.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
Sometimes you just need someone to tell you to go write. I saw John Hornor Jacobs, the author of Southern Gods at a convention once. I was talking to him about all the short stories I had published. I hadn’t written much longer work, yet. I was using short stories to learn. He basically told me it was time to get on with it.
How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?
Most of my marketing, up to this point, has involved networking. I talk to a lot of writers and try to connect with people on social media. I have several accounts, along with my writing blog. Anything I have to market goes up on every one of them. Nothing gets you out there like word of mouth, but people have to know who you are before they start talking about you. I try to be professional and friendly at all times. In the horror community, you get out what you put in. I try to be as supportive, as possible, in hopes that I will be supported in return.
Who is your favourite character from your book and why?
Murph, from “Murph’s Law” holds a special place in my heart. He’s a good-hearted, fun-loving guy, but everything always goes wrong when he is around. His misadventure in the cemetery after pissing on his best friend’s grave was so much fun to write.
How about the least favourite character? What makes them less appealing to you?
Chad from “Perfect 10.” He is a psychopathic, stalking, serial killer. I’m not sure what bothers me more: what he does, or the fact that I was capable of producing him. He’s a flawed guy with a lot of problems.
Fame, fortune, or respect?
Respect. I wouldn’t say no to money, but I would be thrilled to make just enough to not have to do anything but write. Fame is fleeting, and comes in both positive and negative shades. I am in this career for the long-term. Respect builds a career. Fame and fortune can be very short-term.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
“A Burial” leads off All Manner of Dark Things. It’s the story of a broken marriage seen through the eyes of a little boy named Tanner and his teddy bear Otis. They steal his dad’s shotgun. It’s very gritty, brutal, and real. I think it can appeal to both literary fiction audiences and horror audiences. It’s a good indication of my range. It also took a lot of work to handle complicated concepts through a child’s perspective. I am proud of how I did it.
And are there any that you would like to forget about?
I don’t regret things I’ve written, because I believe that anything can be salvaged. If I write a story that is total crap, there is probably a character or a metaphor in it that I can use later. I would like to go back and smack myself for being so pretentious in the early days, but I don’t really regret it. I learned things from those stories, too.
For those who haven’t read any of your books, what book of yours do you think best represents your work and why?
All Manner of Dark Things is my calling card. It holds the full range of the types of things that I write. I don’t see myself sticking to one style or one genre, even. The things I write will always be dark. But they will be varied. I have four books being re-written, right now. One is a thriller, one’s science fiction noir, one is psychological horror, and one is supernatural horror. I like to work on a lot of things at once, and you can expect to see a lot of different types of books in the next few years.
Can you tell us about your last book, and can you tell us about what you are working on next?
All Manner of Dark Things: Collected Bits and Pieces contains almost thirty pieces representing a wide range of dark writing. The shortest story is one page and the longest is nearly twenty. I even have three poems in there. I love the horror genre’s diversity. I’ve spent over a decade studying the genre and trying different things. The stories are both my experiments and my thesis.
The project getting most of my attention right now is Heaven’s Edge. It is meant to be the first of a three book series. In the near future, the world is polluted and ravaged by violence. A billionaire philanthropist builds his dream, Heaven’s Edge, a dome raised above the poison atmosphere where his hand-selected group of people can live in peace. The main character is an old school detective. He’s cynical, sarcastic, and a lot of fun to write. The story begins on the first anniversary of the Heaven’s Edge utopia, with the commission of a murder that leads to The Church, a cult that funded the community. As thing start to fall apart, Mack is much more in his element. The second and third books will be Halo’s Slip and Hell’s Raising, respectively. Expect a lot of fast-paced, sarcastic dialogue. Think of the The Thin Man in a Neuromancer setting with horror overtones.
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
What else should a writer do? People always want to talk about the acts of reading and writing. There is nothing wrong with that. I can talk about reading and writing all day long. But you need to be out in the world seeing things and doing things. Those little bits may not be the meat of your story, but they provide an important seasoning. Those tiny connections help the reader to suspend reality. They feel real, because they are real, even in fiction.