An Interview

 

 

               with

 

 

     Robert Dunbar

 

                              by  Lisa Mannetti

 

 

 

In the late eighties, Robert Dunbar’s first horror novel – THE PINES – made an incredible impact.  Over the years, the book has developed something of a cult following among horror fans, and THE PINES has just been reissued in a limited hardback edition by Delirium Books.  (A few months from now THE SHORE, Dunbar’s sequel to THE PINES, will also be released by Delirium.)  Advance press – in particular a feature story in Weird New Jersey Magazine – has been very positive, even referring to THE PINES as a “modern classic of horror.”  Several years ago, I met Rob Dunbar at an HWA meeting in Manhattan, and since then we’ve run into each other at events like NECON and The World Horror Conference. 

 

LISA MANNETTI: Rob, THE PINES was originally published in paperback a long time ago.  Do you want to talk about what you’ve been up to since then?

 

ROBERT DUNBAR: Not really.

 

LM: Force yourself.

 

RD: You’re such a nag.  What?  Were we married in some previous incarnation?  Can I still collect alimony?  Hang on while I channel a dead attorney. 

 

LM: Rob …

 

RD: Okay, okay.  Let me think.   Well, my short stories – mostly horror and fantasy and a few stabs at mystery – have pretty consistently appeared in magazines, you know, places like City Slab and The Edge, Dark Wisdom and Inhuman.  Where else?  Bare Bone recently.  And Apex Digest.  Plus non-genre publications like Descant and Lodestar Quarterly, even the occasional anthology.   And of course I’ve written articles and feature stories for about a hundred different publications … but all writers do that sort of thing.  I imagine most people would be more interested in my television work.

 

LM: How did you get started in that?

 

RD: Just about in the most roundabout way possible.  When THE PINES came out … No, wait, let me backup.  I mean, I had grown up with the legend of the Jersey Devil.  Pretty much everybody in the Mid-Atlantic area knows it, but before THE PINES no one had ever done anything with the story.  This was before the comic book and that awful movie, even before the famous X-Files episode.  Anyway, when my book came out, the press had a field day – there were stories and interviews, I was on magazine covers, always with that “deer in headlights” look, you know? 

 

LM: Yes, I’ve seen some of those.

 

RD: What?

 

LM: Never mind.

 

RD: Okay.  Anyway, I also did a lot of television shows.  I mean, we’re not talking Oprah here.  Mostly, they aired in timeslots calculated to compete with Farm Report.  Remember, Farm Report?  Anyhow, I did a lot of these locally produced, community-interest type shows, lots of weird little cable programs.  Hell, the Home Shopping Network did a whole series of bits with me wandering around in the woods telling horror stories.  They ran them for years. 

 

LM: Do you remember the …?

 

RD: I remember once this friend of mine called in the middle of the night to complain, “You’re on every goddamn channel!”  So I flipped around, and sure enough there I was on like three different stations simultaneously.  Anyway, I made a lot of contacts doing those shows, and I actually ended up with a few job offers.  At this point I’ve written – what? – maybe three hundred episodes of various cable and public television programs.

 

LM: Do you remember the first show you ever did?

 

RD: Never forget it.  Much as I might try.  The Delaware Valley used to have this late-night horror program that came on right after Saturday Night Live that was called – what else? – Saturday Night Dead.  Maybe the most fun, most outrageous thing I ever did.  Suddenly, here I am doing these insane skits with this voluptuous lunatic of a hostess – they called her Stella – between segments of some old Christopher Lee movie.  It was fabulous and ridiculous, and I had a ball.  She even read aloud from THE PINES … while being terrorized by vampires and skeletons and finally – of course – the Jersey Devil.

 

LM: The actress who played Stella – this is Karen Scioli we’re talking about?  You’ve worked with her a lot since then, haven’t you?

 

 

 

                                                          

                                                           BATS! crew Party: Set designer  

                                                                               Thom Bumblauskas, Scioli & Dunbar

 

 

RD: Oh, yeah, we became great friends.  One of my favorite people to go martini hunting with.  I’ve written demented standup routines for her, a couple of dinner theatre murder mysteries.

 

LM: What about BATS?

 

RD: I take back what I said before – BATS was the most fun thing I ever did.  We created that show together.  It begins in an old dark house … revealed in flashes of lightning.  And, you know, winds howl, and doors creak, and this poor little waif prowls around with a candle, looking increasingly terrified until somebody yells, “Cut!”  Turns out she’s an actress in a film, and the play follows her career, going in and out of her movies and her personal life, which is just as macabre, until she becomes the Queen of Horror, or as she puts it, “Ask anyone.  I give great dread.”

 

LM: The play did well for you?

 

RD: It’s had several productions, won a couple of very minor theater awards, and gotten a lot of press attention.  Actually, I have one great story about rehearsing the play.  May I tell it?

 

LM: Could I stop you?

 

RD:  The very first production of BATS, Karen and I had nothing to do with – we just showed up on opening night.  What an experience!  If you could have seen this Wagnerian ingenue – reminiscent of one of the elephants in Fantasia – stomping every wisp of wit out of the script …   We sat there paralyzed until Karen faked a coughing fit, and I helped her down the aisle.  Then we ran like hell.  I don’t think the producers ever forgave us for not showing up at the cocktail party and press conference afterwards, but we were in shock.  We knew we’d have to do the show ourselves.  But Karen hadn’t done live theatre in years, and she was very worried about being able to project throughout an entire evening.  I mean, the play makes serious vocal demands, if only because the main character needs this deep, husky voice, very sort of Marlene Dietrich/Tallulah Bankhead-esque.  Anyway, I remembered reading somewhere that John Huston had lowered Lauren Bacall's voice by having her shout poetry into a high wind, which resulted in that glorious husky purr of hers.   So I figured, okay.  We’ll make this work if it kills her.  At about that time, we had the opportunity to vacation at Greta Garbo's old summerhouse on Fire Island.  Long story.  Don’t ask.  Anyway, you should see this place – it’s a horror show in itself.  Deep in the woods and totally isolated.  Nothing around but sand dunes and pine trees, and I swear Garbo haunts the cottage. You could feel her in the air.  By the second day, Karen was walking around in a turban, smoking through a cigarette holder and croaking “Hullo, darling” with a distinct Swedish accent.   Of course, so was I.  Anyway we ended up doing a lot of rehearsing on a private beach, with Karen yelling her monologues over the surf.

 

LM: And did it work?

 

RD: She was absolutely brilliant in the part and has played it in several productions now.

 

 

 

 

                                                             

                                                              Cover Art by Mike Bohatch

 

 

 

 

 

 

LM: Let’s get back to THE PINES. 

 

RD: Whatever makes you happy.

 

LM: Thank you.  What …?

 

RD: I mean, this is all about you.

 

LM: Thank you.  What …?

 

RD: I mean …

 

LM: WHAT DO YOU FEEL IS SIGNIFICANT ABOUT THIS BOOK BEING REISSUED?

 

RD: Well, you have to understand – no one has ever really seen this book.  Not the book I wrote.  I mean … the editor … well, let’s just say whole passages ended up not making much sense. 

 

LM: What do you mean by that?  Can you give us an example?

 

RD:  Where to start?  We’re talking stylistic devices.  Okay.  Say for instance, the heroine finds her husband’s body on the ground, and I have her thinking, It’s not him.  The reader understands it is him and her thoughts represent desperate denial.  But if it’s rewritten without italics to read, “She stared down at the body.  It wasn’t him.”  The reader is simply left wondering, well, then who the hell is it?  May sound like a small thing, but it happened on virtually every page.  I’m breaking out in a sweat just thinking about it.  And there were bigger problems too.

 

LM:  Like?

 

RD: What can I tell you?  Do we have to get into this?  Okay, just one more thing – then we have to change the subject because I’m starting to get really agitated.  My main character was African-American.  I was halfway through the galleys before I realized they had simply omitted all mention of her skin color, which of course made psychological nonsense of her whole situation and    No, don’t get me started.  But come on now – they edited her melanin?  Excuse me?  That’s not editing.  That’s censorship.  And it stinks.

 

LM: Did anybody else pick up on this?

 

RD: You know, a few readers did come up to me and ask if she was supposed to be black.  And a couple of critics even made remarks of the “Mr. Dunbar appears to have been ill served by his editor” variety.  There are some very insightful people out there.  Of course as a writer I’m just the tiniest bit sensitive about this sort of thing.   I mean, getting your first novel published under any circumstances is a blessing, and I was very grateful.  But I sweated blood making that text distinctive … then to see the book intentionally ‘dumbed down’ …  well … you know how protective writers are with their work.  Especially their firstborn.  It broke my heart.  And it’s the main reason I didn’t work in the genre again for years.  Still, enough of the manuscript must have survived, and a lot of people loved it.  Book reviewers in the horror magazines were profoundly generous.  For a complete newcomer to find his work so praised – often on the same page as a review for the new Clive Barker or Steven King – I was incredibly bowled over.  And the mainstream critics were equally kind, calling the book things like a “masterpiece of literature” and a “superb thriller.”

 

LM: You got some bad press too though, didn’t you?

 

RD: Oh God, yes.  I was roundly attacked by some of the New Jersey papers – they accused of everything from “Jersey bashing” to polluting their local legends.

 

LM: Why do you think they reacted that way?  You’d think they’d be pleased about the book.

 

RD: Well, you have to understand – the whole state has a huge chip on its shoulder.  Always has had.  I mean, the whole country makes fun of it.  But that’s not the only problem.  Try to imagine if Bram Stoker had just written “Dracula” today.  How do you think the local Carpathians would react to being depicted as a hotbed of violence and superstition?

 

LM: Did THE PINES sell well?

 

RD: Depends on who you ask.  Let’s just say the Jersey papers weren’t the only ones who just didn’t seem to get it.  Every time I did another television interview or was the subject of another article, there’d be a huge demand for the book.  I was constantly getting phone calls from bookstore managers and even distributors who complained that they couldn’t get copies … even when it was still supposedly in print.  Talk about a heartbreaking experience for a writer.  I had one buyer ask me, “How does it feel to know your publisher threw away your one big chance?”     

 

LM: But it wasn’t your one chance, was it?

 

RD: Even then I knew that.  Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself.  And look where we are now – the book has been reissued in a gorgeous hardback edition.  And it’s been restored to my original version.  Something I can be proud of.  Finally.  And – maybe best of all – THE SHORE is also being released.

 

LM: Is this a reissue?

 

RD: Oh no!  This is being published for the first time.  No one has ever seen THE SHORE.

 

LM: Is it really a sequel or …?

 

RD: It’s a sequel.

 

LM: Might I possibly be allowed to finish a question?

 

RD: Could you talk faster?  I don’t usually go this long without a drink.

 

LM: Did you get any other bad press?

 

RD: You mean besides this interview?

 

LM: I’ll ask the questions, please.

 

RD: Don’t be short with me, Lisa.  I did have this one anti-fan.

 

LM: You had a what?

 

RD: An anti-fan.  This weird guy – very Religious Right Wacko sort of thing – went around denouncing my book at conventions and stuff.  I loved it.  He even had this pamphlet printed up that accused me of being “abnormal.”

 

LM: He thought you were abnormal?

 

RD: Trust me.  He had no idea.

 

 

 

                                                 

                                                  Dunbar reviews SF on television

 

 

 

 

LM: Now you’ve got me all confused.  Where were we?  Oh, THE PINES.  Okay, so tell us.  What is the Jersey Devil?

 

RD: Oh dear.  There are so many answers to that one.  Well, first of all, it’s the oldest oral myth tradition in America.  The oldest.  That’s what drew me to it in the first place.  All the acknowledged classics of horror literature have always been based on actual folklore – all of European origin for obvious reasons.  But don’t you get tired of stories about vampires in Pittsburgh or werewolves in Miami?  I wanted my first book to be about something indigenously American.  Then I went on a camping trip to the pine barrens and got stranded in a storm, and all the campfire stories from my childhood seem to come pouring down on me.  In a flash, I knew I had it.

 

LM: Right.  But what is it?

 

RD: You want to hear the legend?

 

LM: Please.

 

RD: Okay.  The traditional version maintains the demon was born to a Mrs. Leeds … in a hut deep within the woods.  He was her thirteenth child, and she didn’t want it.  Personally, I find it difficult to hold this against the old girl.  But she cursed the unborn child, saying, “Let it belong to the devil.”  Actually, some versions of the story have her saying that it did belong to the devil, that it was the devil’s child.  Keep in mind this was years before the Salem witch trials.  Context is everything.  But most variants of the myth have certain consistent elements – the requisite dark and stormy night, the infant being normal at birth, then turning into a monstrosity before the mother’s terrified eyes.   Anyway, she keeps it locked away until at last it grows strong enough to break free and escape to the forest and – voila! – a star is born.

 

LM: And what does it look like.

 

RD: That would be telling.

 

LM: And this is the basis for your novel?

 

RD: Oh no.  Well … yes and no.  I mean, I use the fact that the legend has existed for hundreds of years and that people totally believe in it – I use that as the background for a far more complex and sophisticated story.

 

LM: And do people still believe?

 

RD: Absolutely.  No question. 

 

LM: How do you know?  Just exactly how did you go about researching the book?

 

RD: Well, aside from the obvious forms of research, hunting down articles and monographs at various university libraries, I spent a lot of time out in the woods.  Several times I got lost more or less on purpose, just to see where I wound up.

 

LM: You mean you went out alone?

 

RD:  Well, yeah.  I wanted to be scared in the woods, wanted to capture those feelings.  And I found some incredible places.  Ghost villages.  Ruined mansions.  Bizarre wooded areas full of quicksand and poisonous snakes.  People don’t realize how enormous the barrens are – that’s the amazing thing – but it’s over a million acres.  And I found all these incredible little towns.  I’d start making sketches, turn on my tape recorder, and people would gather around to see what I was up to.  I felt like one of the Brothers Grimm.  Soon as they heard I was collecting Leed’s Devil lore, out would come the stories.  Everybody had seen it.  Everybody.  Women became hysterical talking about how they’d been chased by it.  Men told me about the time it tried to break into their homes.  There was no question.  They believed.

 

LM: And what do they call the people out there?

 

RD: Pineys.

 

LM: Pineys, right.  Speaking of bad press, they don’t have a very good reputation either, do they?

 

RD: What do you mean either?  Never mind.  No, pineys have always had a bad rep.  In fact the term ‘pineys’ was coined by a turn-of-the-century anthropologist named Elizabeth Kite for a book about what she described as “the mentally defective people of New Jersey.”  I mean, yikes.  She described them as being so cut off from the civilization around them that they might as well have been the descendents of castaways.  And these are the people among whom the myth of the Leeds Devil was born. 

 

 

 

 

                                                         

                                                         Dunbar soaks up atmosophere for The Shore

 

 

 

 

LM: So how is THE SHORE different from THE PINES?

 

RD: Well, THE PINES ends on a fairly apocalyptic note.  All blood and thunder.  THE SHORE begins a couple of years later, in the dead of winter, at a nearly deserted beach town on the outskirts of the barrens.  It’s very quiet.  Very tense.

 

LM: Is it the same characters from THE PINES?

 

RD: The main character in THE SHORE is one of the main characters in THE PINES, and several other characters from the earlier novel get involved as well.  But THE SHORE is a very different book.  Stylistically it’s far more evolved.  Of course.  And the atmosphere is very different.  Instead of a sweltering swamp, it’s set in a stark, icy landscape.  There’s nothing quite so surreal as snow on a beach.  Unless it’s bloody footprints in the snow.  But I think people who loved the first book will find this one just as delicious.

 

 

 

 

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                                               ©2006--2011 Lisa Mannetti--The Chancery House--All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

                              Critical acclaim was rampant for The Pines and you surely won't want to miss the sequel, The Shore!