Grisly Details: Editors BC’s David Antrobus on the Horror Genre

Written by David Marsh; copy edited by Annette Gingrich

Most editors have a few horror stories from their work experiences. For some, though, horror stories are the work itself.

Editors BC member David Antrobus is one who regularly edits horror fiction. With Halloween here, West Coast Editor asked David to share some of his experience, along with some tips for editing this genre.

What is your background in editing horror? How and when did you get into it?

When I first took up editing in the early years of this century after making a drastic career switch, I initially edited non-fiction, ranging from academic papers to non-profit social issue websites to business copy. I was simultaneously pursuing writing, so I made a great many contacts in the world of writing and publishing before I made the switch to editing. Some of those contacts were horror authors, so it was a natural evolution, especially given my lifelong love of the genre beginning with the Grimm brothers and Where the Wild Things Are (not even kidding).

That said, I probably edit more fantasy and dark fantasy than outright horror, largely because there seem to be more authors in those fields. Which is fine by me as I love all speculative fiction, even if horror is my absolute preference. I’ve edited everything from steampunk to zombie apocalypse to supernatural to psychological horror. My favourite is psychological, but I love all the subgenres.

What special skills are needed in this area? Are there problems particularly common in horror that editors should watch for?

I don’t know if you can call it a skill, but if you choose to edit horror, you will need a strong stomach. You will need to know your own boundaries as far as distressing content is concerned. You might be okay with gore, but animal torture could be your Achilles’ heel. Or it could be child abuse. Or sexual violence. A reasonably lengthy conversation with the author is a good idea ahead of the actual edit, in order to determine some of the traumatic places the work might explore.

Now, I happen to have that strong stomach when it comes to fiction, so I can take on work many other editors might shun. But even that needs context. It’s never happened to me, but I like to think I’d be able to discern whether an author was getting something out of a distressing situation and even quietly advocating for it. If that ever happens for me, I know I’d decline working on the manuscript. Same for any Trojan Horse-style far-right political beliefs.

Another area often considered a problem in writing can often be a strength in horror. Namely, cliché. Now, I don’t mean we should encourage hackneyed writing or formulaic plots, but horror readers do crave a certain kind of arc in their narrative. Occasionally, a good writer will challenge that, but largely we need that major conflict and its resolution, even if said resolution is an upsetting one. That’s one place horror authors have leeway: a happy ending isn’t guaranteed and when it does happen, it needs to be earned, since a certain degree of nihilism is the default.

Finally, a specific aspect of editing horror: talk to your authors about this, but try to persuade them not to capitalize their monsters. When an author invents a creature—let’s say a slayer—alongside the more familiar types like zombies and vampires, et cetera, they often want to capitalize its type: Slayer. It leads to a domino effect of capitalization, since if you capitalize hobbits, let’s say, you then need to capitalize elves and dwarfs and…men. Which starts to get silly and unnecessary and risks the reader’s full immersion.

Shirley Jackson said, “no murder before chapter five”; Stephen King said, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Are there any rules of thumb you find useful in editing horror?

I recently reread Shirley Jackson’s short story collection, and King is, well, King—an author I’ve been reading since the late seventies—so I don’t want to stand in opposition to anything they might say! But the truth is, I’m skeptical of most writing advice even though I’ve fallen prey to it myself. It’s difficult to universalize “rules” that work for everyone.

I have certain editing preferences, some of which I feel strongly about and will make my case for with an author, others that are mere foothills not worth dying on. I tend to prefer active voice, but there are times when passive voice sounds more natural. I generally prefer showing to telling, but I’ve encountered areas of a novel where telling is essential for pacing. I like simple dialogue tags mixed with the occasional action beat, not expansive dialogue verbs. In terms of horror specifically, I prefer a slow burn story in which the author makes you care about the character over many chapters, thus magnifying the impact when the horrors begin. I just finished reading an excellent example of that: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. But I also know that such an approach is a subjective thing. And it doesn’t mean I’d balk at editing a novel in which the horrors begin early or even immediately.

Are there any particular joys and (ahem) horrors in working with authors in this genre?

In general, horror authors are the most lovable, kind, and even well-adjusted group I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Perhaps it’s the cathartic nature of horror, but it tends to be written by such thoughtful and fearless people. They often seem to be able to write through their fears, which takes a certain amount of courage. An entire cadre of current and even traditional horror authors are active on social media and engaged meaningfully with the world’s issues and problems in passionate, compassionate, and compelling ways.

As for the horror authors I’ve personally worked with, editing these authors is always enjoyable. They listen to feedback, stand their ground when they feel strongly, and are a joy to work with. Perhaps I’ve simply been lucky?

Many thanks to David for doing this interview!

David Marsh lives in Vancouver and is a recent graduate of Simon Fraser University’s Editing Certificate program. Before that he was a newspaper journalist for 15 years in Metro Vancouver, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. David has a habit of delving into questions of language, popular science, and countless other curiosities. Find him on Twitter.

Annette Gingrich is a Vancouver-based editor and writer, and chair of the Editors Canada student relations committee. Hailing from Ontario, she fell in love with the terminal city while on tour with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

Image by Unsplash

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