Working in SF, fantasy and horror sometimes feels like living in a ghetto.
We end up apologising for where we live. When something originates on our turf it is never considered mainstream, and if it becomes popular its roots are ignored. Yet, as I pen this, seven of the top ten Hollywood movies fall into those three categories.
This paradox goes some way toward explaining that although FantasyCon's 2007 guest Stephen Jones is a publishing legend, he has never become a common household name. Instead of apologising for his passion and turning his back on it whenever his books prove popular (and popular they most certainly are) Steve seizes the moment to remind the world exactly where his roots lie. It takes guts to do that, and forges as many enemies as friends.
Photo © 2007 Peter Coleborn
If you want to know about the phenomenal number of books Steve has created or the awards he has been given, you can find out about them easily enough. I'd rather recall some personal experiences.
The first time I met Steve, at my very first BFS convention, I thought someone must have ordered a mini-cab. He called across the room and acted as if he'd known me for years, like cabbies do.
Up until then, everyone I had talked to in the world of SF, fantasy and horror had been very non-committal, apologetic and guarded in their opinions. Steve was the opposite. I met him at the convention because it's hard not to; he's always there and you can always hear him. He has an edge of metal in his voice and a ball of fire in his belly, and he will argue with you until your tongue dries up and your eyes fall out. We had our first argument within minutes of meeting, about Stephen King.
At last, I thought, someone who is not simply prepared to nod along and be nice. What is the point of attending the BFS if everyone does that? But Steve didn't do it merely to be argumentative. He's forgotten more than I could ever know, and he doesn't forget anything. If you pick a literary fight with him, and sometimes it's hard not to, you'd better know what the hell you're talking about, because he will always know the author under discussion (probably personally), will have read all of his work and will have formed a number of distinct opinions. That day, he wiped the floor with me. I hadn't felt this bad since I'd stayed in a Bristol hotel with Jewish friends and had accidentally wandered into a Nazi fancy dress party.
So after the first meeting, my opinion of Steve was; friendly, argumentative and informed, prepared to take a contrary position if it furthers thought on the subject. Not nice, which is a good thing.
The second time I met Steve, I decided he had anger management issues.
At this meeting, a BFS night in the kind of "atmospheric" ie. scuzzy and completely charmless pub the BFS favours, Steve railed against someone whom I quite liked. He told me, in no particular order, that this writer was dim, talentless, a liar, a thief and a fraud. He also told the writer exactly what he thought. After swallowing my shock, I discovered that Steve was right, and had voiced feelings that no-one else had been prepared to articulate in order to protect his authors.
But he also praised a writer neither I, nor anyone else in the room, had ever heard of, and promised to send me his book. I imagined he talked to Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury the same way he talked to me (possibly a tad less rudely). Even better, he always had books coming out of his pockets or in a crumpled plastic Sainsbury's bag. I've never seen him without a book on him—you can trust someone like that.
By the time of our third meeting, in another glamorous BFS pub (imagine warm beer being served in a derelict Post Office) I had heard what other people thought of Steve. A tiny handful regarded him with inarticulate rage. Some thought of him as a force of nature, like a bad storm. And many quietly considered him the last of the genius mavericks. I watched him hurling insults, buying drinks, shouting down detractors, encouraging debate—and carefully listening. (I later found out he remembered everything and everyone). He had no sense of hierarchy or deference, could be harsh about the nervous new kids who were anxious to see themselves in print, and also very encouraging, if they were prepared to listen back. That seemed to strike the right balance—you don't get better if you don't know what's wrong.
At our fourth meeting, stuck to the bar in what appeared to be an abandoned inoculation centre but was in fact another BFS pub, Steve accepted a story from me, and I finally found myself in an anthology so balanced and intelligently planned that it could be read from cover to cover (this is a rarity). His editing skills were obvious; he was clearly acting as a magnet, drawing out fresh talent, but also pushing more experienced writers who were growing too comfortable.
At a meeting for lovers of vampire fiction, Steve picked a spectacular fight with a female reader in a fraught Q&A. She had fallen back on a classic American Republican line of defence; "We won't buy you if you don't say what we want to hear". Steve was right to question her lazy assumptions, but even so I found myself arguing back. Everyone in the room started taking sides. For a while it seemed that no matter who won, we were going to get our heads kicked in. Steve clearly enjoyed the row, and afterwards we drank together while the injured party glared ineffectually at us. I began to think of him as someone who was prepared to thrash a still pond with a stick, stirring everything up until some brightly coloured fish came to the surface. I had certainly never met anyone like him.
Photo © Mandy Slater
The Dracula Society Debacle: Stephen Jones and Christopher Fowler (top row);
Tina Rath, Sydney J. Bounds, Brian Stableford and Kim Newman (front row).
Whenever we met after that he would first of all attract my attention by the endearing habit of shouting "Oi, Fowler!", then insult me or blame me for some minor transgression I had committed. With my film background I was used to dealing with pretentious, arrogant, self-appointed "creatives" who were often nothing of the kind. Steve was completely the opposite; behind the jokey rant and patter of pub conversation, he was turning wheels and continuing with the creation of a distinctive genre talent-base—mixing business and art to the benefit of both.
It's a testament to what he has created that you can sense his hand hovering over so much brilliant writing. I quickly learned to recognise his own house style, and could see he was forcing us to be better than we could ever have been without him.
I had worked with a film company called Palace Pictures who wanted to make popular intelligent films, and made Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves—an art film if ever there was one—a hit by getting it into the 2,000-seat Odeon Leicester Square. By creating a supply, they actually created demand. That's what Steve does. If he wasn't around, many of us would have found a smaller audience. Without him many lines of supply would simply not exist, the demand would not be encouraged, and the art of storytelling would suffer immeasurably.
Steve also acts as a bridge; between publishers and the unpublished, between writing of the past and ideas of the future, between pre-war pulp and post-war modernism, between mainstream and experimentation, between writer and reader. This last point is probably the most important. Anthony Gormley says there are three elements in successful art, the sculpture, the space and the public. Steve never forgets that it is not enough to write; you must find and attract the reader—which is why his books are so popular.
So while the self-centred "creatives" stay in their invisible coteries congratulating each other and just talking about it—Steve remains the
genuine article, out there in the real world, working at the source. I imagine it's often a thankless task, but this year it's our chance to turn
our debt to him into an honour and a big fat rousing thank you.
Originally published in FantasyCon 2007 Souvenir Book, edited by Peter Coleborn.
Copyright © Christopher Fowler 2007. All rights reserved.