Batman’s Dogs, Lumley’s Coke and Shaun Hutson’s Knickers – Fear’s John Gilbert Interview part one

Fear Magazine was spawned in 1988 and quickly became a favorite among fans of horror, fantasy and Sci-Fi – right from the start Fear was different from most other genre titles. It was more cerebral than most and was rare in that it had a fiction section which provided opportunities for new writers as well as featuring work from established voices. I was a huge fan of the mag, never missed an issue and this week I got to sit down with editor, John Gilbert to chat about Fear Magazine, as well as John’s other genre related activities.

Scary Motherfucker presents Vincent Stark in conversation with John Gilbert.

VS: I remember Fear Magazine hitting the shelves and it had the look of a few of the computer magazines of the time, most noticeably Crash with which it shared a cover artist.  I believe you were working in the computer press prior to launching Fear?

JG: Yes, I was Deputy Editor at Sinclair User and had also worked for Computer and Video Games. In fact it was a piece for them on the horror genre that got me thinking about the possibilities of a horror/fantasy magazine. There were already publications such as Starburst out there and I figured that a new magazine would need to stand apart from the others, to draw in fans because it was written by fans. It was blessed in that it had the financial muscle of a successful publisher in Newsfield which also gave it a top knotch design team and a brilliant illustrator.

VS: Fear was more intellectual than most genre magazines, and I was delighted you covered horror literature in as much depth as you did movies, a rarity for the period. The magazine managed to lure some big names to its pages. Were the genre luminaries always receptive to Fear?

JG: We were very lucky to attract top names like Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, James Herbert and Clive Barker. We were serious about presenting their work in a way that the mainstream newspapers and magazines were not. And I have to say – we did it in style. I was amazed at some of the layouts the design team put together.

VS: It must have been great fun to hang around with these genre luminaries. Any anecdotes you’d like to share?

JG: I always felt grateful when writers invited me into their homes or said kind things about the magazine. Clive Barker even phoned to congratulate us when the magazine launched. He was so busy and certainly didn’t have to do that but he did anyway. And I remember getting very drunk on Brandy and Coke whilst talking to Brian Lumley at his house in Cornwall. Incredibly that turned out to be one of the best pieces I ever did.

VS: Perks of the job.

JG: One of the weirdest interviews I did was with Shaun Hutson – his then current novel featured a scene set in the underwear section of a well known department store, and Shaun took me there and tried to convince the manager to let us do a photo-shoot amongst all these knickers. We were turned down and so we shot pics of Shaun in front of the store. When the interview was published I described Shaun as the most disgusting horror writer because of an incident that happened in one of his books – we’re talking a zombie blow job here with loads of maggots. He returned the compliment by signing my copy of the book, “to the most disgusting editor.” It’s all good memories – I also recall a magical tour of Liverpool I took with Ramsey Campbell as my guide and a similar trip around Newcastle with Stephen Laws. Stephen and I followed this up with an evening watching Hammer movies which we both love.

VS: What about the celluloid side of the genre?

JG: I did a lot of set visits to Pinewood. I particularly enjoyed a visit to the set of Hellraiser II and meeting Ashley Lawrance and Kenneth Cranham. There was also one time when I got too close to the Batman set and was chased off by ferocious guard dogs.

VS:  You co-wrote the Nightbreed Making of book with Mark Salisbury and you’ve mentioned Clive Barker. He of course burst onto the scene with the excellent Books of Blood series. He was the writer Stephen King called, the future of horror. Are you surprised at the way he’s gone with his writing? Seemingly away from out and out horror and more into dark fantasy.

JG: I’ve massive respect for Clive who has continued his creative output despite chronic illness. Many careers were launched on the tide of his success and he is the consummate all round artist, pushing in new directions. I don’t think he’s abandoned horror and I suspect he has a few more surprises up his sleeve for us. I hope that we can all broaden our horizons and follow Clive’s lead and I certainly hope we can continue to be proud of the horror genre and I will never let it limit what I write be it fiction or journalism.

VS: Speaking of fiction, tell us about your forthcoming book.

JG: I’ve a novel that I can’t reveal too much about at the moment. I’ve had the title, The Knowledge which refers to the rigorous test London Cabbies have to go through before they can get their licenses. They must learn all the back routes and the quickest way from one place to another. They are the custodians of the secrets of London, where the skeletons are buried and all of the strange things that go on. That said the novel is not about cabbies and it’s got something for everyone – action, weird sex, violence, occult powers and a mystery at its heart. I’ve also got other novel projects and short stories in the planning stages.

VS: Keep us informed on these works.

JG: Of course.

VS: Fear’s fiction section was so popular that it spawned a spin off fiction magazine, Frighteners. However one issue featured a controversial story, Eric the Pie by Graham Masterton and the biggest retail chain, W H Smith pulled the title from its shelves. Did this hasten the demise of the title?

JG: No not really. I think it made us more determined to be cutting edge. We did Satanic and Vampire issues that shook up people and led to me going face to face with a vicar on Radio Four’s Halloween chat program. At the same time it also drove us to find ways to go right to the line without stepping over it.

VS:  Why did Fear Fold?

JG: Newsfield, our publishing company, went into administration. Let’s just say that for reasons that had nothing to do with Fear, which was still in profit, it all came to an end. I was given a decent budget to produce the magazine and I used this to pay the freelancers – anything left I took as my salary. Needless to say the more I spent the less I earned but I was usually able to strike up a nice balance.

VS: I concur –  had you not then the magazine would not be as dearly missed as it is.

BE BACK HERE TOMORROW FOR PART TWO IN WHICH WE TALK ABOUT THE STATE OF PLAY IN THE HORROR GENRE AND THE POSSIBLE FUTURE FOR FEAR MAGAZINE.

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