Ginger Nuts of Horror
Johnny Mains is an award winning editor, biographer and horror historian whose main area of expertise is British horror anthologies. He also the author of two collections of horror stories.
Mains is a lifelong fan of The Pan Book of Horror stories and created a fan site for the thirty book series. This in turn led him to release his first anthology as editor, Back From the Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories, which features sixteen new stories and five reprints from the original series. Authors featured include such Pan luminaries as Basil Copper, Christopher Fowler and Nicholas Royle. The book was released through Mains' Noose and Gibbet imprint at the World Horror Convention in March 2010. and won the Best Anthology Award at the 2011 British Fantasy Society Awards.
At the World Horror Convention in March 2010, Mains was responsible for the biggest gathering of Pan Horror authors for a panel on the history of the series and the dealings the authors had with its editor, Herbert Van Thal.
Mains was appointed Project Editor for the re-issue of the 1959 Pan Book of Horror Stories. The book was published, with a new introduction in October 2010 to critical acclaim.
Mains was a regular contributor to 'The Paperback Fanatic', a magazine devoted to pulp paperbacks. His interviews for the magazine have included Basil Copper, David F. Case, Shaun Hutson and John Holmes. Mains has also written for 'SFX' and the re-launched 'Fear' magazine, Mains' interview with James Herbert was one of the last Herbert did.
Mains' debut collection 'With Deepest Sympathy' was published by Obverse Books in October 2010. Containing fourteen stories of the 'odd and twisted' the tone of the stories are very Pan Horror in style, though the collection does include several ghost stories, one of which; 'Reconvened: The Judge's House' is an unofficial sequel to Bram Stoker's short story 'The Judge's House.'
Mains has also edited the first Obverse Quarterly book 'Bite Sized Horror' and 'The Screaming Book of Horror' - which contained unpublished stories by John Brunner and John Burke.
In July 2013, Mains announced his involvement with two new horror anthologies from Salt Publishing. - Best British Horror, a collection of the best horror short fiction from 2013, and Dead Funny (with Robin Ince), a collection of horror stories by comedians.
How are you doing Johnny, so how does a wee man from Galashiels end up being a world authority on horror?
Less of the world authority, will you? However, I do find it a bit odd that so many nice people who I admire and look up to say these things about me; I just haven’t the heart to tell them otherwise! I’m not an authority on anything though, I’m just a fan boy who knew nothing about conventions or the small press until I first dipped my toe in 2008. To be honest, I’m glad I was ignorant of it all until then – I don’t think I’d have had the head on me I have now to have done the many books and projects I’ve been involved with. I was still too much of a party boy. However, first and foremost, I’m a fan boy first, and I love the genre with all of my heart and will do everything in my power to promote and further it.
Apart from yourself and Textiles has anything else worthwhile ever come from Galashiels (and don’t say Craig Chalmers, my cat can play better rugby)?
Nothing. The place is an abject shitehole. I hated it growing up and I’ve hated it the two or three times since I left. It was always miserable and grey. The town and its people. Even nights out had a feeling of self-defeat about them, that the night was already fucked before you got the first drink down your neck. Well away.
Did you ever play rugby, or where you one of the nerdy kids hiding behind the bike sheds? I have you down as a scrum half.
I played rugby, and only scored one try in my life. I was always at the back, last line of defence. And you could have blown me down with half a breath. There was nothing to me.
It’s a place I’ve never been and we are of a similar age, so how did a young Johnny Mains get his first fix of horror fiction? You never forgot your first, mine was a middle aged lady on my paper round, (sorry wrong first) who was your first proper horror read?
The first horror story I remember reading was ‘The Judge’s House’ by Bram Stoker and it affected me deeply. So much so I wrote a sequel to the story in 2009. I think I was 11 or 12 when I first read it, but I didn’t really get into horror then – I was reading Mary Danby’s Armada Ghost Books and Peter Haining’s children’s anthologies – to be honest, at that time I was reading Agatha Christie’s complete works because I came across two or three plastic bags worth of books that belonged to my mother and I read and re-read them. It was of course Tom Adam’s amazing covers that suckered me in. The man’s a magician.
My old man bought me the 13th Pan Book of Horror Stories when I was 13 and I read a story in it called ‘Spinalonga’ by John Ware. And that was the story that really did it for me. There was something about it that just got me and my obsession with all things horror and the Pan Horrors just grew from there.
And how did you feed this addiction once it was burned into your head?
From there I went onto acid, heroin, PCP...
No, the reality is much more mundane. I remember someone reading Carrie at high school and I borrowed it from them. That was…different. And our school library was really special in the way that it was both a school library and one that was used by punters walking in off the street, so I read and got most of my horror from there. Annie, the school librarian, who I have to pay tribute to here, is one of the greatest women alive – she was amazing in getting me more and better horror to read. In the early days it was Stephen King and James Herbert and Shaun Hutson, but she also got me the more obscure stuff like Robert Aickman and Charles Birkin. Reading this stuff at 14/15 blew my mind.
Let’s get some of the basic questions out of the way, who is your all-time favourite author?
It would have to be Conrad Hill from the Pan Horrors. Has never written a novel, but fuck me, the man’s a legend.
What authors who are working in the genre just now that you admire?
I’ve made it no secret that I’m a fan of Rob Shearman’s work – he’s one of the greatest writers I’ve ever read. I also love Reggie Oliver’s work, Sarah Pinborough’s novels, and have recently been blown away by Nathan Ballingrud. We’re living in some great times – and it’s good to see some amazing authors out there.
And who do you think is the most overrated author of all time and why?
James Herbert. I liked him, and he was a lovely man and I’m sad that he’s dead – but bloody hell – apart from 4 books – that’s it - 4 good books, he was no better than the other NEL hacks he lorded it over. And the new award in his name. A joke. I interviewed him just before he died and asked him what his legacy would be and if there would ever be anything in his name to help other authors and he flat out said no. So his family and publishers have rejected his wishes which is absolutely abominable.
Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday.
Chicken Tikka Masala. I’m not into hardcore curries, like the iron-bellied Gary Fry.
How do you think the genre is faring? Do you think we are about to enter a new era of greatness?
It’s doing much better than a couple of years ago when I said that there was no hope for it and that it was dying on its arse. Shows you how much I know. I think what’s kept it going is the dedication of those writing for it – even though we have people who used to write for the genre now making the big money in other places, and fair play to them – ALWAYS go where the money is - the ones who remains will plod on until death.
What do you love the most about the genre?
I love the people who give their all for the genre. From con going to writing for small press for sometimes little reward, to those who read and review books, ah, fuck it – to everyone!
And what do you despise the most about it?
I don’t despise anything. I’m just sad that certain people within the genre seem to want to only make a name for themselves and not put any hard graft in.
Horror more than any other genre seems to be full of idiocy and self-serving ego maniacs. Why do you think this is, what is it about horror that makes some writers so petty?
I don’t know. I don’t really care. I can certainly be tarred with the idiocy brush by many, I’m sure. And that’s fine, I’m not here to have anyone like me, I’m here to further the cause of horror within the mainstream and have people buy horror books. That’s IT. I always remind myself that when people have a problem with me, it’s never my problem. Let them chew themselves up over whatever.
Author, archivist, editor, friend to all the best horror stars, how the hell do you fit it all in?
It’s all down to time management, which I’m shit at, but I cram in as much as possible. And seem to get it done.
It’s well known that you have a great love for the Pan Book of Horror, why this series of anthologies, what is it about them that inspired so much passion for them?
I don’t know! They’re just brilliant! Very British, very eccentric – some of the stories in there are not to my taste, but the series as a whole, I love it. And it’s never bored me, nor let me down. There’s a story in there for every day of the year and then some!
Do you have a have a favourite story and edition in the series?
I love Pan Horror 13 because it was the first one I wrote and the story ‘Spinalonga’ by John Ware – which also comes from that volume would be one of my favourites because it was the very first story I can remember reading. However, another firm favourite is Gilbert Phelps’ ‘The Hook’ from Pan Horror 14 is quite, quite bonkers.
In 2010 you released Back From the Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories, which featured sixteen new stories and five reprints from the original series. How did you go about selecting the stories?
I selected the originals because I knew the authors and it was easy to get permission from them. As to the new stories – it was all about tracking the authors down and asking them.
To celebrate the release of the book you were responsible for collecting together the biggest collection of Pan Horror authors at Fcon, were there any authors you couldn’t get to appear, and who was in your opinion the one author living or dead that you wished you could have gotten to appear?
Sadly couldn’t get Conrad Hill to make it, that was a real shame. But to be able to get Harry E Turner, Basil Copper, David Case, Samantha Lee and all the other authors in the room at the same time was a triumph, and goes down as the greatest con experience ever. I don’t think it could be topped.
Have you ever considered reprinting the series in a new format with an introduction from a key author?
The Pan Horror series could never be reprinted in full, sadly. We were lucky to get away with doing the first book without too much hassle – but the rights clearances would be horrendous. Over 450 authors to track down – many who were writing under pen names. It would be too messy.
You have also published a biography of Van Thal, how did you go about collecting all the information for the book?
The biography was published at the back of my anthology Back From The Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories and when I started writing it I only had a birthdate and a year of death for Herbert van Thal, nothing more. So I started at the end and found his death certificate, the place where he was cremated – phoned up the company and got more information on how much it cost, who paid for it etc. Then slowly worked my way back through his life until he was born. It took a year to write and cost a lot of money to research – although you don’t do this stuff for the cash!
And did you discover anything that made you go “wow I never knew that”?
The fact that Bertie was on the jury for the murderer John Christie – and that Bertie didn’t want him to hang, but to be studied. That showed progressive thinking. Christie was sentenced to death and hanged for his crimes.
The book was published through your own publishing company Noose and Gibbet, why did you set up the company?
To publish that book. Back From The Dead was originally going to be doing a ‘Pan Horror special’ with Charlie Black from Mortbury books – but that fell through. SO I took the plunge and published it myself – only 150 copies. It sold out within a few months then won a British Fantasy Award a year later, so it was the right decision to make!
Were you concerned about possibly being tagged as a self-published author? There is still a stigma attached to such a thing.
No, because I don’t think there is the same stigma as I edited the bulk of the book and only wrote the biography at the end which was a work of non-fiction.
2010 saw the release of your debut collection With Deepest Sympathy which has been described as very Pan Horrorish, it also contains the story Reconvened: The Judge's House, a direct sequel to Stoker’s The Judges House. Looking back at the collection how do you think it holds up, and how do you feel that your writing has developed since its release?
It’s clearly the work of someone who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing! Only kidding – I just wasn’t experienced enough. However, it’s being republished as a paperback next year for its 5th anniversary and I went through the original files and re-wrote and tightened up all of the stories, and you know something; maybe I’ve always been a bit too tough on myself with regards to that book. It has several stories in it that I’m really proud of, The Judge’s House took a lot of work to get right and I think it shows. Also the title story, With Deepest Sympathy, seems to be one of those stories people mention favourable, so it’s all good.
Which forgotten author would be your dream project to resurrect?
Already done one! Frank Walford’s Twisted Clay, published through my Remains imprint. That was a dream come true. Next up is Lady Frances Leyland Barratt’s Lycanthia – a female werewolf novel!
It’s clear that you have a genuine passion for horror and those who work in it. Which can be seen in the release of John Burke’s The Sorcerers. I get the feeling that this was a project that was very dear to heart? How did you get involved in the book?
John had always told me the story about The Sorcerers and how he was screwed over by the films director Michael Reeves. John showed me the original screenplay and said it was a shame that nothing could be done about it. And then he died quite suddenly . So I made it my mission to get the story out there, have the truth be known about John’s involvement – that he wasn’t just the supplier of the idea – he wrote the original screenplay! That PS Publishing came on board to do the book blew me away – and it’s yet another jigsaw piece fitted into the British Film story and hopefully it will be used in research and in the ‘further reading’ section in other books! My personal involvement with the film hasn’t ended – I’ve just finished work on the blu ray release of the film, I was honoured to be asked to speak about John and write the liner notes for the film which also included me interviewing Ian Ogilvy and Tom Baker (not the Dr. Who one).
Where do you see The Sorcerers – and indeed John Burke – fitting in with British horror/genre cinema?
It’s a curious film – not exactly horror – not exactly a slasher film, although it does have its moments. I think with the bluray release it’ll be appreciated by a new generation of film fans and they’ll learn more about John’s role and I hope they go out and source some of his books.
Before he wrote The Sorcerers, John had penned a screenplay – to be directed by Michael Reeves – called The Devil’s Discord. After problems during pre-production, the film was shelved. Whatever happened to this script?
I have the script here. It’s covered in John’s hand-written notes and I hope to transcribe it and publish it with John’s autobiography which is sadly incomplete, but I’m hoping to build it up into a big book of Burke!
The last 18 months have been rather full on for you. How are you feeling about this, are you calm or are you beginning to think “shit this is getting real”?
The miniscule raising in attention is to be expected and actually it’s recognition that the long hours that you put in is paying off. So being asked to go places and speak about stuff you love is a brilliant bonus. I’m able to talk about films I love in front of other film fans – that’s been the highlights of it all so far. Being able to watch Throne of Blood, The Sorcerers, Nosferatu on the big screen is mental, but a real privilege. However, I think with Dead Funny there might be a little bit more of a focus on me, and I’ve been told to expect it – but if that raises the profile of the genre, then good!
Best British Horror is where it all seems to have taken off. This is a brilliant anthology featuring some of Britain’s best horror writers. Was this an invite only anthology or was there an open call?
As it’s a book of reprints I choose the stories after they’ve already been published in their respective anthologies/collections. So the authors don’t come into it until after I’ve made my choice and approach them to ask if I can use their story in the book. Thankfully nobody said no!
Apart from being The Best where there any other goals that you wanted the book to achieve?
The book was originally called The Best British Horror, but I asked the publishers to remove ‘The’ –from the title because the book is not THE definitive vision of what the best British horror writing is. It’s only my take.
Saying that, I did want the book to be received well, and it has been and we got a cracking review in The Guardian (never less than entertaining) and people have been really, really kind to it and have loved the variety of stories.
What constitutes The Best is very subjective, how did you go about selecting the stories? And do you think you missed anything off?
See my above answer! In hindsight, there were two other stories I wanted to use – but that’s the way it goes, I was already well over the word count with the stories I had picked!
The horror community, especially in the UK is very small, were you at any time concerned about accusations of old boys clubs.
As to accusations, fuck ‘em. You’ll always get them. And the people who throw them shout the loudest because they have no talent and they know it. The weirdest thing is having people message me and tell me that they hope to be in the book.
However, I do have many friends in the genre, and it will be that I publish a friends story in a book. But that’s because it was the best story I had read, not because they’re a friend. Just because someone is a friend doesn’t mean that they have an automatic right to get in the book. And if they think that, then we shouldn’t be friends because they have unrealistic expectations.
The book is dedicated to the memory of Joel Lane, to those who don’t know Joel or his work it is hard to explain the huge hole that was left in the genre by his sudden death. What did Joel mean to you, what do you think was his largest contribution to the genre?
I only met Joel a few times, emailed him a few times – it was mainly to talk about his work, namely his amazing collection The Terrible Changes. He was always pleasant – but I wasn’t a friend. I just thought that because of his contribution to the genre it would be remiss not to honour him and his work. His contribution – well his legacy is secure and there will be a lot of great essays to come about his work in the future and hopefully some unpublished stories will be uncovered – I’ve been told from people dealing with his collection that there have been several finds.
Is this going to be a recurring anthology?
I’m already working on Best British Horror 2015 and I think it’s going to be a brilliant book. Completely different tonally, but one that will build up on what we’ve been able to do with the first book, and then some!
Your next big project is one that I am particularly looking forward to Dead Funny, it has what is in my opinion is the greatest concept for an anthology ever. Stand-up comedians writing horror. I have to ask what makes you laugh?
Disgusting jokes. Such as this gem someone told me the other day. What’s the difference between babies and potatoes? I don’t like peeling potatoes.
Utterly wrong, but I laughed my head off when I was told it.
It seems such obvious partnering as both horror and comedy share a common psychological source, but how did the idea first come to you?
I was talking with the missus about what anthology I should do next. I wanted to do a horror anthology, but wanted to raise the bar and have a book written by people you would never ordinarily see writing horror stories. We were going to see my friend Robin Ince perform at a gig he was doing and it kind of all led on from there, really.
If you could get any comedian living or dead to appear in the book who would you pick?
A short story written by Derek and Clive would be AMAZING!
You are editing the book with the comedy legend that is Robin Ince , how did you two first meet?
We met through Twitter. He was doing a gig in Norwich, where I was living at the time – we both professed a shared love of the Pan Horrors and we met after his gig and the rest is history. Robin’s a lovely chap, probably the busiest person I’ve ever met, and I’m pretty busy myself! But he always has time for me.
Have you ever had one of those taxi driver moments where you have turned to Robin and gone “here’s one for you” and proceeded to tell him a terrible joke?
When is the book out and are you planning on doing anything special for the event?
Book should be out at the same time people are reading this interview! October 1st is the release date, I hope that everyone gets behind it and buys a copy!
To many, publishing two brand new anthologies, while working alongside your own writing would be enough. But not for you, where in hell do you find the time, energy and enthusiasm for it all?
I don’t know really. I love the genre. I suppose I just get on with it really and deal with all the consequences of being run down and decrepit when I’m there. Maybe I’ll burn brightly for a few more years then sputter out and if I do, that’s okay too. I think I’ve done enough to make a little dent in the genre!
And how do you unwind, what do you like to do when not horroring it up?
I play with my daughter, she’s brilliant, amazing to see her learn and interact. I watch films. I sit in the garden and close my eyes for long periods of time.
Let’s finish of by talking about your upcoming writing projects. I was lucky enough to read a rough draft of the first half of your new novella The Gamekeeper a while back, can you tell the readers a little bit about the book?
The Gamekeeper is weird because I wrote a short story a few years ago called ‘The Rookery’ about a bloke called Roger and his son Shaun. Roger was a gamekeeper. The story was about 3k in length, was very downbeat and whilst I was really pleased with it – I just thought the whole gamekeeping thing wasn’t out of my system. My dad was a gamekeeper, you see – and I used to go out with him a lot. My father died when I was 18 – so I suppose I had a lot of unresolved issues that writing the story helped me get over. I’ve re-used the names Roger and Shaun for the novella, but they are different characters. However, the novella is a supernatural one, Lovecraftian in tone – and it wasn’t something I was entirely comfortable with, but I finished it and the editor has liked it enough to use it. I’ve re-edited the novella for its appearance in my forthcoming collection, due next year – and I’ve been toying with the idea of expanding it into a novel, but removing all of the supernatural elements in it. Just finding as many different ways as possible to skin a cat, I suppose. I’m proud of it, contains some really good writing and shows how far I’ve come since I started writing.
How much has the story changed from the draft I read?
I think you read it first draft, it went through another two.
How, where and when can we get a copy of the book?
Well, I think it was supposed to come out in August, however I’ve been assured it’s coming out soon, would like it to be out by the end of the year as it was written over a year ago now.
Also appearing in the book are Thana Niveau, Alison Littlewood and Scott Harrison. I’m aware of the fabulousness of Thana and Alison, two very fine writers, is Scott the Scott Harrison who did the audio anthology Thirteen?
Yes it is! This is the third time he’s used a story from me – once for 13, the other for an anthology he did called Beside the Seaside. He’s a good editor, a good egg – but I think that his heart lies in writing his own stuff, not editing others.
To many what we have talked about would be more than enough, but I know you, what else have you got up your sleeve that we should be getting excited about?
I’ve written a short story for the Curious Tales team, am writing a 10k story for Hersham Horror called Curse of the Monster, I have a story for the Terror Tales series (Highlands) and that’s about it with regards to my writing. I think I’m going to write a few new stories for the third collection which is called The Girl on the Suicide Bridge and Other Hangings.
As to editing, got loads on. All fun though!
Johnny as always it has been a pleasure chewing the fat with you, do you have any final words for the readers?
Thanks for having me! Support the genre! Listen to N.W.A every day. Keep in touch with your friends. Read.
DEAD FUNNY IS OUT NOW PURCHASE A COPY FROM THE LINK BELOW