Author Jonathan Janz graciously took time to answer questions about the inspiration behind his newest horror novel, ‘Children of the Dark’. In this interview, Janz also describes the challenges of writing a horror novel featuring a notorious and sadistic killer, what elements make for good horror and genre blending.
‘Children of the Dark’ tells the story of of Will Burgess. Abandoned by his father, son of a drug-addicted mother, and charged with raising his six-year-old sister, Will has far more to worry about than most high school freshmen. To make matters worse, Mia Samuels, the girl of Will’s dreams, is dating his worst enemy, the most sadistic upperclassman at Shadeland High. Will’s troubles, however, are just beginning. Because one of the nation’s most notorious criminals—the Moonlight Killer—has escaped from prison and is headed straight toward Will’s hometown. And something else is lurking in Savage Hollow, the forest surrounding Will’s rundown house. Something ancient and infinitely evil. When the worst storm of the decade descends on Shadeland, Will and his friends must confront unfathomable horrors. Everyone Will loves—his mother, his little sister, Mia, and his friends—will be threatened. And very few of them will escape with their lives.
‘Children of the Dark’ is available NOW from Sinister Grin Press, Amazon, and major online booksellers.
Jonathan Janz grew up between a dark forest and a graveyard, and in a way, that explains everything. Brian Keene named his debut novel The Sorrows “the best horror novel of 2012.” The Library Journal deemed his follow-up, House of Skin, “reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.” 2013 saw the publication of his novel of vampirism and demonic possession The Darkest Lullaby, as well as his serialized horror novel Savage Species. Of Savage Species, Publishers Weekly said, “Fans of old-school splatterpunk horror–Janz cites Richard Laymon as an influence, and it shows–will find much to relish.” Janz’s Kindle Worlds novel Bloodshot: Kingdom of Shadows marked his first foray into the superhero/action genre. He has also written four novellas (Exorcist Road, The Clearing of Travis Coble, Old Order, and Witching Hour Theatre) and several short stories.
Francis Xavier: What is the first line from Children of the Dark?
Jonathan Janz: The week I saw seventeen people die didn’t begin with blood, monsters, or a sadistic serial killer. It all began with a baseball game.
FX: What inspired Children of the Dark?
JJ: The main inspiration was the setting in which I grew up, as well as the relative poverty in which my mom and I lived when I was little. The house and the graveyard and the forest in the novel are exactly as they were during my childhood. Now, my own mom was wonderful, so she’s a lot different than the mother in the book. I didn’t have a little sister either, but I did have a cat (Cuddles) to which I was very attached.
FX: Three words to describe your writing?
JJ: Emotional, cinematic, scaffolded. For me, it’s really important for a story to connect to the reader emotionally, and the best way I know how to do that is through characterization. I put more effort into characterization than I do anything else, and I hope that provides a payoff for the reader.
I’m also a Film Literature teacher and an avid moviegoer. As such, I want my storytelling to unspool like a mental movie for the reader. If a scene isn’t sufficiently visual (as well as appealing to the other senses), I either cut it or rewrite it to make sure the reader can visualize the action, the characters’ facial expressions, the setting, and everything else in the story.
I use the word scaffolded to describe the manner in which I try to tier my work to satisfy many types of readers. The majority of readers just want to be entertained, and, as alluded to above, I work hard to make that happen. There’s nothing at all wrong with escapism.
However, there’s nothing wrong with wanting more from a book either, so I work hard to ensure that there are multiple layers in my stories that other readers can appreciate. Like some of my favorite movies (The Lord of the Rings, The Big Lebowski, and Jaws), I want my books to be “rewatchable.” That can only happen if there’s a subtext present as well as a text. You don’t need to know about the social commentary in Wolf Land to enjoy it; you don’t need to understand how Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and Brian Keene’s Ghoul influenced The Sorrows in order to enjoy my debut novel; and you don’t need to pick up on the foreshadowing and the symbolism in The Nightmare Girl to be entertained by the book. But if you enjoy commentary about male/female relationships, the intertextuality between my books and others, and the literary depth lurking under the surface of my work, those elements are present in those stories for you to read and consider.
FX: Which part of Children of the Dark challenged you the most?
JJ: As a father and a teacher, I have a heart for children. That made some scenes in this book really difficult to write. In a perfect world, children would never be endangered, but we all know this world isn’t perfect. Because I put my protagonists through hell, everyone Will Burgess loves is threatened in this story, including his best friends, his potential girlfriend, and his little sister. The scenes with children in jeopardy were painful for me, so much so that I often had to step away from the keyboard to regain my composure. But I stayed true to the characters and the story, and that’s what matters most.
FX: Which character from Children of the Dark do you most identify with?
JJ: My protagonist, without question. In many ways, I am Will Burgess. There are pieces of me in the other characters (Chris—Will’s best friend—especially), but I relate most to Will. He’s well-meaning, sometimes insecure, loving, sometimes temperamental, and in the end, he tries to do the right thing. He also overthinks everything, which is what I tend to do.
FX: What did you learn about yourself as a writer while working on Children of the Dark?
JJ: Great question! I learned (not for the first time) that it’s important to listen to good advice. My agent and her team came up with multiple helpful thoughts about the book after reading my first final draft, and the book is much better as a result of it. My pre-readers also helped me a great deal by sharing what worked for them and what could be improved. As solitary an endeavor as writing is, I’m a firm believer that other sets of eyes—the right sets of eyes—can enhance a story greatly. That was certainly the case with Children of the Dark.
FX: What elements make for good horror fiction?
JJ: Here’s the thing—and I genuinely believe this: Most great fiction requires reader empathy and identification, and this goes doubly for horror. The general public has a tragic misperception of horror. Many readers and moviegoers assume it’s brainless, gore-soaked, and hopelessly nihilistic. And while there’s nothing wrong with carnage or hopelessness as implements in the writer’s toolbox, people who dismiss horror without really giving it a chance are missing out on a world of insight, heart, thrills, and profound truths. Great horror doesn’t ignore the aforementioned elements; it looks more deeply into them than any other genre. In great horror we become psychic travelers inside the protagonist’s bodies, hearts, and minds. We feel the emotions they feel. We luxuriate in or recoil from their sensory input. We see ourselves in them, and we’re forced to stare unblinkingly into the truth about ourselves and the world around us.
That might sound grandiose, but I firmly believe it. Horror is a byproduct of love. Without love there can be no loss. And without darkness there could be no joy. Horror reminds us of these things and reminds us to fight for joy and to be champions of light. In the final analysis, I believe horror fiction is a celebration of love.
FX: What are your thoughts on genre blending in works of fiction?
JJ: I love it when genres blend because I’m not a fan of literary boundaries. I think that it needs to be done naturally and organically, because forced mash-ups shatter the spell the storyteller is trying to weave and reveals the fissures in the illusion. But when constructed well, the blend can be incredibly rewarding.
Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is a fabulous example of this. Is it a horror story? Well…yes, but it’s also a fantasy series. And a romance. And a western. It’s also a post-apocalyptic tale with sci-fi trappings. It sometimes veers into crime/gangster territory before swerving into the realm of mystery. But because King is so breathtakingly talented and skillful, the reader can enjoy the whole glorious blend because it all works. It’s all necessary to the story.
FX: Where can we find you and your work online?
JJ: You can find my blog. Soon that will become a gorgeous website where you’ll be able to do all sorts of marvelous things, including buying my work and reading about upcoming projects. I’m also active at Goodreads.com, on Twitter, on Instagram, at Amazon , and on Facebook. Feel free to look me up on any one of these websites. I love to interact with readers!