Isotropic Fiction readers first encountered the chilling work of C.I. Kemp in IF08 with “Bastion,” an eerie, zombie-like story told through a series of journal entries. A review of Kemp’s latest horror novel, Demon Ridge, is scheduled for this fall.
C.I. Kemp is a lifelong horror buff currently living in the wilds of northern New Jersey with his technologically advanced son and neurotic cat. By day, Mr. Kemp works in the Information Services industry; by night he is an avid reader and writer of thrillers, horror, dark fantasy, and occasionally erotica and humor. He is a member of the Garden State Horror Writers. When not engaged in pursuits which involve scaring the pants off his readers, Mr. Kemp enjoys hiking, biking, and various other outdoor activities. His work has appeared in K-Zine, Cover of Darkness, State of Horror: New Jersey, and Books To Go. Visit him at ci-kemp.com.
Isotropic Fiction: Do you think every story has essentially been told before and that today’s writers must juxtapose old ideas and stories in new ways rather than worry about originality? If no, what recent speculative fiction story did you find refreshingly original?
C.I. Kemp: Refreshingly original? I recommend “Dark, Beautiful Force” by Jessica Mary Lin. It’s a superhero fantasy / love story which is poignant and unpredictable. Also, “Holy Diver” by Grá Linnaea has a unique concept: a double agent on a mission into Hell to find…ah, but that would be telling!
Now on to juxtaposing old ideas and stories in new ways. Melissa Mead re-invents familiar fairy tales in a way no one else does. Her take on “Rumplestiltskin,” “Fool’s Gold” is disturbing. “The Three Bears” is re-invented as “Subject AT-171” and is quite funny. Then, there’s the chilling “White As Snow, Red As Blood” which takes Snow White in a whole new direction.
Also on the subject, you’ve gotta give The Good House by Tananrive Due its—er—due. On first glance, it’s a traditional haunted house story, but with a different kind of spirit doing the haunting.
Juxtaposition + Originality? You gotta give that nod to two modern writers. First, Brandon Massey. Within The Shadows blends elements of “Fatal Attraction” (a possessive girlfriend who won’t let go) with “Terminator” (said possessive girlfriend can’t be killed stopped or reasoned with). And if you think there’s no new ground to be broken in vampire literature, check out Dark Corner (novel) and “The Patriarch” (short story). Both of these focus on aspects of vampire lore that have been downplayed or ignored. In Massey’s work, traditional vampire lore exists, but takes a back seat to more obscure, but no less horrific elements.
And last, but certainly not least is J.K. Rowling. Who else has ever taken familiar fantasy memes (werewolves, elves, wizards) and made them into McGuffins? In Harry Potter world, it’s not the paranormal entities or the battles that are truly important. Rather it’s the characters’ growth and development from wide-eyed, naïfs channeling their abilities into fully-actualized, responsible, and noble adult behavior. Kind of like the Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew series if written by Tolkien with a smattering of morality play thrown in.
IF: What do you think of plot twists? Are they invariably hokey, or can good writers pull them off well? Do you think too many stories use twists as a crutch? Can a story with no twists hold your interest? Do you ever try to “surprise” your readers without going all M. Night Shyamalan on them?
CIK: Let’s start by defining the term: a plot twist is a change in the expected direction a story, designed to surprise the reader. They’ve been around as long as there’s been literature. Take Genesis 22 where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to be told at the last minute: this has been a test. Of course, there are the famous O. Henry endings so prevalent in the original Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In their day, those twist endings usually succeeded in surprising the reader / viewer.
Fast forward 50 years. Audiences and readers growing up with TV shows, movies, and literature using twist endings have become more sophisticated (and jaded) to the point that it’s harder to surprise them. A modern audience viewing the Twilight Zone classic, “The Invaders,” might half-expect the tiny invaders to be from earth, but when the episode was first aired on January 27, 1961, viewers were blown away.
This isn’t to say that modern audiences can’t be surprised. In The Sixth Sense, the revelation that the Bruce Willis character was dead was unexpected. (Unfortunately, subsequent Shyamalan efforts such as Unbreakable and The Village were pretty lame – superb examples of how a twist can fall flat.) Another example of a successful plot twist is the close of The Taking by Dean Koontz. The reader is led to believe that earth is being overrun by malevolent extraterrestrials, but that’s not the case. Clues are provided, but not likely to be deciphered.
Can stories with no twists hold interest? Absolutely. Richard Laymon relies on solid pacing and extreme situations to capture and hold reader interest. Jonathan Maberry’s “Like Part of The Family” has a twist but that tale’s impact is derived from the situation and skillful characterization. Lovecraft’s work remains predictable (obsessed protagonist pursues things not meant to be known and meets an untimely end), but Lovecraft’s mastery of atmosphere and suggestiveness of cosmic horror are what keeps the reader riveted and coming back for more.
And yes, plot twists can be used as a crutch. I gotta plead guilty to that one myself. Fortunately, there have been editors and critique groups which have grabbed me by the figurative lapels and shaken some sense into me. Thanks, all.
IF: Now that touchscreens and space vessels are becoming things of science fact, what makes Science Fiction unique?
CIK: That’s like asking a hundred years ago, “Now that cars and airplanes are becoming things of science fact, what makes Science Fiction unique?” Imagination will always outstrip experience: we still haven’t encountered otherworldly life forms or set up house on other worlds or even determined if there are other dimensions. The possibilities remain infinite and science fiction is the only genre that can do justice to exploring those possibilities.
IF: To what degree do your stories reflect your reality?
CIK: In my writings, I deal with demons, mad scientists, serial killers, otherworldly entities, werewolves, devil worshipers, witches, vampires, Lovecraftian beings, etc. Do these reflect my reality? I’ll never tell.
IF: How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?
CIK: I grew up on such lighthearted entertainment as old horror movies, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, Thriller, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I loved the old Forrest Ackerman horror mags as well as Poe, Lovecraft, Bloch, Howard, etc. My parents, plus various experts in child psychology claimed that kids like me would grow up twisted. I’m pleased to say that they were right. Those twisted kids from yesteryear are the doctors, lawyers, teachers, technology professionals, politicians, and horror writers of today, with no lasting harm done to their psyches or the world at large—except maybe for the politicians.
The entertainment I enjoyed as a kid shaped the kind of writing I do today. Much modern speculative works are: a) dreamlike stream-of-consciousness ramblings, b) descriptions of a character’s state of mind without the event which led up to it, c) surreal settings without associating any events, occurrences, or “aha” moments. Much of this is beautifully written, poetic and evocative, and I’m not trying to disparage these trends, but they’re not stories. To me, a story is an unfolding of events where something happens. A conflict is introduced. Characters experience the consequences of the conflict’s resolution or non-resolution with a beginning, a middle, and an end that flow into one another. I want to tell stories, the kind I experienced and enjoyed while growing up.
IF: Who do you think of when you think of your readers? Are you telling your story to them, to yourself, or to something or someone else?
CIK: In his introduction to Night Shift, John D. MacDonald says the following of Stephen King: “He does not write to please you. He writes to please himself. When that happens, you will like the work too. These stories pleased Stephen King and they pleased me.” I agree with that statement. It’s not arrogant to say that he (or I) do not write to please you, but rather to please him / myself. If I’m not satisfied with what I write, I have no right to expect you to be. Of course, there are those that don’t like the genre in which I write, and that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. I write to satisfy my tastes as a horror buff and, by extension, those kindred spirits who also like to feel the icy touch of something unknown, something that cannot and / or should not be. So step into the darkness with me at http://www.ci-kemp.com/index.html. I promise I won’t foist anything upon you that I myself don’t like.
IF: What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?
CIK: See my response to “How do you react to a bad review of one of your books?” below.
IF: While writing, do you take drugs, smoke marijuana or drink alcohol to beef up your creative imagination?
CIK: No, but I occasionally open a six-pack
IF: How do you react to a bad review of one of your books?
CIK: My books don’t get bad reviews. They’re all great and no reviewer would dare say otherwise.
IF: What’s the one question that you always want people to ask you about writing that they never do? What’s your answer?
CIK: What do you think of Splatterpunk?
I fall somewhere in the middle between the “no limits” and the “splatter me not” schools. The purpose of horror is to instill fear and explicit shock is one of the tools that accomplishes this. Think Hitchcock’s Psycho. The term, “Splatterpunk,” didn’t exist in 1960. If it did, however, by the standards of the time, it would have applied to the Janet Leigh shower scene and the Martin Balsam stairway attack. What these events accomplish is to implant a sense of extreme danger which lingers with the viewer even in the non-dramatic scenes.
Then, take the 1968 Night Of The Living Dead, generally regarded as the most gross and graphic horror movie made up until that date. Yet, for all its in-your-face scenes of cannibalism, there are the moments where the characters bicker, regroup, and plan. These scenes allow viewers to process the horror they’re seeing. This horror resides simultaneously in the viewer’s gut and mind and those catch-your-breath moments allows it to take root there. Like Hitchcock, George Romero understood the need for relatively quiet moments between bursts of extreme violence. So do writers like Richard Laymon and Robert McCammon.
There are those writers and filmmakers (I’m not mentioning names, but you know who you are!) who feel that a continuous stream of blood and guts and gore makes for a good scary movie. IMHO, it doesn’t, any more than a steady flow of Big Macs and pork rinds makes for a balanced diet. Those foodstuffs may be okay on an occasional basis, when counterbalanced with the good stuff. Similarly, strategically placed splatterpunk moments enhance a work of horror fiction; an overabundance detracts.
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