Over the past few years, the Horror Writers Association (HWA) has been generating a lot of publicity. They re-released On Writing Horror, their revised collection of original and new essays for young horror writers. They've released a new anthology, Blood Lite, a collection of humorous horror stories from HWA members. They also have a Grievance Committee and Hardship Loans service for members in need of aid. Behind the scenes as well as in public, President Deborah LeBlanc has made strides toward getting the HWA to be a much more influential force in publishing for its membership.
But the publicity has not been pure Pollyanna. Some in the blogosphere have complained that Blood Lite had to rope in non-HWA heavyweights like Charlaine Harris and Jim Butcher to sell the anthology (if they have since become members, they are not listed on the HWA website as such). Others have concerns about the administration's conduct in banning some members from the private HWA message boards. Brian Keene, an HWA member who left and returned three times, actively called for the organization's destruction, believing that any writer could achieve the HWA's original goals and mandates without the organization at all. According to Keene, the organization is now largely designed to support and maintain the Bram Stoker awards.
These concerns raised a question: what about the HWA founders who laid down the original goals in the first place? In 1996 Stanley Wiater wrote an informal history of the organization for On Horror, the HWA's original reference collection (you can read the essay here). While many contributed to the successful creation and launch of the HWA, the organization would not have existed without four individuals: Robert McCammon, Joe Lansdale, Karen Lansdale, and Dean Koontz.
Here, twenty-five years from the initial spark, Robert McCammon (Boy's Life, Speaks the Nightbird) and Joe Lansdale (The Bottoms, Leather Maiden), look back at the organization they created and that they currently have little to do with. Both authors were adamant that they had little to no knowledge of the current concerns and efforts of the HWA, but their perspectives are instructive to horror writers both in and out of the organization, as well as readers.
The initial spark came in 1983 from McCammon, a successful and innovative young Turk of dark fiction. "I thought horror writers needed (and would like) a place to call their own," McCammon said. "A community of like minds and interests. I honestly had no idea at first how quickly the idea for a horror writers' organization would be jumped upon."
McCammon's original vision was simple. "My original goal was, apart from having a place for horror writers to meet and communicate, to have HWA be a repository of market news and also a group that could, in time, afford to help ailing (or starving) writers who were down on their luck. Socialism, anyone?"
Lansdale's professional career was also blooming fast in the early 1980s. He and his wife became involved in McCammon's vision by accident. "We were in an elevator with Rick and Sally McCammon and got to talking, and he said he thought horror needed its own organization, and that he had come up with this title, THE HORROR, OCCULT WRITERS LEAGUE, or HOWL. I loved that. Later it became THE HORROR WRITERS OF AMERICA, and then THE HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION. I wasn't just writing horror, and never have, but it was my main passion at that moment, and it was becoming a real commercial genre. [...] There had been commercial hits, but there wasn't a Horror genre in books in the commercial way there was SF or Mystery, or Crime, etc. Stephen King had at that point changed the landscape and excited a lot of us, no matter what genre we worked in."
But the idea needed effort to become a reality. "I was unprepared for all the 'hoopla'," McCammon remembered. "I have to say [...] though I had the idea for HWA, the lion's share of the real work was done by others. I burned out on it pretty quickly, but Joe and Karen Lansdale and Dean Koontz did the huge majority of the work. They had the patience of saints." [Note: Dean Koontz was not available for interview.]
Lansdale concurred. "Rick [...] had run an ad somewhere, but when the response hit, it was overwhelming, and he decided he didn't want anything to do with it. My wife [Karen Lansdale] said, 'I'll do it,' bless her heart, and she did. The original newsletters were photocopied, and this was before email and when photocopies were still crude, and it was prepared at our house and mailed out by us, often with our own money, though mostly people sent stamps to receive the mailings. A number of writers in the field volunteered to write pieces for it, and this crude newsletter [Our Glass] went out. Dean Koontz [...] said he'd volunteer time and money to make [the HWA] more professional, and after several months we were getting it going, acquiring a list with me and Rick and a few other writers hooking in some big names. Dean took it and turned it into a professional organization."
McCammon made it clear in print that he did not want the HWA to be merely a fan club or oriented toward the novices. As he wrote in an Our Glass interview in the early 1980s,
Number one, HWA is not going to be geared primarily for beginners. It's going to try to hit a healthy balance between the professional and semi-professional. HWA should not be a fan club, nor should it be a clique with a closed center. HWA should be a support group for the professional and semi-professional writer, sort of a clearing house for ideas that would benefit not just the writers, but the field of horror fiction itself. Number two, HWA cannot survive with a membership of beginners only, because it's the pros who are going to give clout to the organization.
Looking back, McCammon wondered about the feasibility of the goal. "Well, I was very young and unfortunately very naive. I did think HWA would benefit the working writers both beginning and veteran, but I didn't count on the human factor. I didn't count on egos and bickering and all that comes with people who are in competition with each other. Was it bound to fail? Anything that doesn't grow and evolve soon collapses, so there you go. And I recall somebody saying to me, 'You know, Rick, most HWA members are only going to care about the awards.' I didn't want to believe it."
Lansdale also lamented the dominant role the Bram Stoker award began to play in the organization. As younger talent entered into the organization, the initial vision for the HWA started to shift. "[I]n many ways, the beginners pushed us out. They wanted the organization to cater more and more to them. I don't think that's a bad thing alone, but they wanted it to be easier to be a member. I have no problem with that, but a professional organization needs professional leadership, and those who do sell to markets, like their work or not, are the ones doing it. If you keep dumbing down the rules to be a member, and dumb down the goals for members, it becomes less and less interesting, and just about awards.
"I've won seven Bram Stokers, and I'm proud of every one of them, and not a one of them has had one iota of influence on my career with publishers. Again, I'm proud of them, but them's the facts. And part of that is because the organization isn't viewed as being as professional as it should be."
Indeed, the focus on awards obscured HWA's key goal: fighting for writer's rights. "We thought the original idea was to bond writers and try and form a kind of writer's guild that would fight for the rights of writers," Lansdale said. "I personally went about collecting owed money for a few with a few phone calls, that sort of thing, promoting writers, but it pretty much became about the awards. Originally, Rick, Dean, myself, and my wife, didn't want there to be awards. Later, it was decided by the membership that there would be. I didn't think this was terrible. Nothing wrong with an organization honoring its writers, but I feared, and unfortunately, it was a fulfilled fear, that this would soon become the focal point. It did."
Lansdale soon tired of all campaigning done by those eager to win a Stoker. "I always felt if a story of mine was recognized by readers, good, but I don't believe you should campaign. I've had a few writers, when I was in the organization, or when they thought I was, call me up to lobby for them on awards. I never did, and I never will."
Lansdale reiterated that he had nothing against the awards. "But the goals to promote horror fiction, to take care of writers, went by the wayside."
Over time, both authors began to find themselves drifting from the organization they'd created. For McCammon, it happened roughly fifteen years ago. His waning desire to write horror coincided with his disinterest in the HWA's operation. "I realized that 1) the HWA was turning into an awards-and-ego-fest; 2) the horror genre could be as confining as a straitjacket, and publishers are the most conservative type of animal you could ever fear to meet, thus if you as a writer are considered a "horror" writer you are dead when you try to step out of the genre; and 3) I didn't like the idea that horror was being defined at that time as 'cutting-edge' and 'valuable' only if it was as bloody and debased as possible. And that certain members of HWA who were and still are cowards because they're afraid to write, they just want to criticize, set themselves up as autorities over what 'horror' ought to be."
Lansdale left the organization as an active force early on for a number of reasons, some of them echoing Keene's criticisms of the current HWA. For Lansdale, "it didn't really work as a writer's organization anymore; it lost the clubbiness because it's now easier to get information via the internet than a monthly mailer, and you don't need the HWA just for that. A lot of established writers can help other writers without being a member. I know I have. And then there's a limit to what you can do anyway. A blurb from me won't make your career. A blurb from Stephen King won't make your career. You have to do the work and you have to keep at it."
McCammon is no longer a member of any writer organizations, but Lansdale remains active in the International Thriller Writers and The Writer's Guild (for screenplays), both of which are serving his interests and career goals. But with the HWA, "I finally just lost interest. If the organization couldn't provide a pension plan and insurance, it was just a fan club. We also pushed for better payment in the field, which wasn't that good back then. I don't know how it is now for new writers. I also wanted to push open the doors for minorities more, and women, people who are now more active in the field, but were less so then. That took care of itself, I think. But we just lost all of our goals." Unlike McCammon, Lansdale, like Keene, has rejoined and has "been joined" by the organization a few times over the years "to participate in anthologies to support the organization, I think three times. I had some hopes and nostalgia. Nothing changed. I'm probably done with it now."
So, what advice do the founding fathers of the HWA have for the current organization? Should it be sent to the boneyard? "It's no surprise that horror has crashed," McCammon noted, "and I'm not really up on what HWA is doing or not doing right now. But my opinion is that it's still a valid organization as long as it considers itself a 'home' to all types of writers in the field. If it's inclusive and tries to tend to the needs of older writers as well as help new writers, then great. I mean, I think it's good for horror writers to have a physical place to meet every year. But if it's all about the awards, then not so great. I do realize now that I was intending to form a community out of a very competitive group of people, and maybe it was never going to work out or reach its potential because of the human factor, but I do think it had its time, and if HWA were to close down tomorrow I think some good things were done by the organization. It brought people together, let them know they weren't 'alone in the world', helped new writers meet veterans, and it made people proud of the work they did. I think that's a pretty good record, no matter where HWA goes from here."
Lansdale was more specific. "I think the members should decide to go back to the original goals. Keep the awards, but make them worth more by making the way to become a full member have to do strongly with achievement; try to use the organization to open more markets, acquire better payment, [create] an insurance program that really works (I think there might even have briefly been one, and keep in mind, I say all this admitting full well that I'm not up on the very current aspects of the organization. I'm speaking about then and why I left.), a pension for writers."
Lansdale ended with this thought, regarding the state of the horror industry compared to that of another field. "Probably the best and most professional new organization out there is the [The International Thriller Writers]. I think it's a great model for revamping the HWA [...] I think it might even be an idea to incorporate the HWA into that organization, because Horror fits well under the Thriller label and it broadens the scope for the writers and for the field [...] One problem with the [HWA] might be that Horror is just too narrow a title. It can hold a lot of different things, but the name sort of limits it with a lot of people. I'm not saying that's right, I'm just saying that's true. I'm not trying to piss anyone off here, just saying that the HWA lost its way shortly after its creation. Too bad. It had potential."