Interview: Award-Winning Editor, Ellen Datlow

October 22, 2014

An enormous thanks to Ellen Datlow for agreeing to discuss horror with us this month. Ellen has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for over thirty years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and currently acquires and edits stories for She has edited more than sixty anthologies, including the annual The Best Horror of the Year, Lovecraft’s Monsters, Fearful Symmetries, Nightmare Carnival, and The Cutting Room. Forthcoming are The Doll Collection and The Monstrous.

She’s won multiple awards for her editing. She was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre”; has been honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career, and the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award for 2014, which is presented annually to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding service to the fantasy field.

ellen datlow

This month The Masters Review is focusing all of our content on horror and scary stories, of which I consider you the authority. Can you talk about your specific preferences in the horror genre? How they’ve changed, grown, or even simplified? What must a story evoke to be considered horror?

I’m afraid I’ve got to disappoint you—I have no specific preferences in horror. I love stories that stick with me because there’s more going on in them than just a one-note “scare.”  For me, great horror fiction has the same elements as any great fiction: A unique voice, characters that keep me interested, and a believable plot that forces me to continue reading. With the addition of an underlying sense of dread.

You’ve edited more than sixty anthologies, have over thirty years of experience editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and have numerous awards to your name. What have you learned about the genre in this time?

One thing I’ve learned is that the borders are fluid. Many of the most interesting stories combine science fiction and horror, or drift uneasily between dark fantasy and horror. There is science fiction that feels like fantasy and fantasy that feels like science fiction.

And some of the best writers dance around the genres gracefully by creating disturbing horror, compelling fantasy, or realist science fiction depending on where their muse leads them.

I often think horror is misinterpreted. What would you say to someone who doesn’t like it? Who would you encourage them to read? What does horror offer readers that is unique (beyond the obvious thrills and chills)?

I’d advise them to ignore most of the movies that refer to themselves as “horror”—they’re not. Most of what’s out there debases the entire genre with its graphic violence against women and its slasher mentality. That type of sensation horror is the lowest form of the genre.

To me horror often overlaps with the weird, in that it’s creepy and gives you a chill. (Although as I mention below, some weird work isn’t dark enough for me to consider it horror.) A movie might keep you on the edge of your seat (which doesn’t mean there should be no violence—John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the most effective pieces of horror film making I know).

Effective horror explores the truths that humans are loathe to face: death most prominently—the fact that we’re all going to die. The loss of loved ones, losing one’s control, fear of the unknown, pain. These things scare us whether couched in the supernatural or psychological.

When you’re developing an anthology are you seeking a new perspective each time? Or is it driven by something else: trends, style, or a question you’re interested in exploring?

When I propose a theme anthology to a book publisher (unless it’s an ongoing series like The Best Horror of the Year) it must be a theme/subject that interests me and will continue to interest me for a couple of years. Because that’s how long it takes from the sale of an anthology to its publication.

Every anthology for me is about showcasing the writers whose work I love. I’m lucky in that over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of writers in science fiction, fantasy, and horror at OMNI Magazine, Event Horizon, and SCIFICTION. So over the almost twenty-five years that I worked with magazines/webzines I became familiar with countless stories and their creators. In addition, editing a best horror of the year for twenty-eight years brings me in contact with even more writers as I read through sf/f/h magazines/webzines, anthologies, and collections.

Editing an anthology based on a trend usually fails, unless you can put together the anthology and get it out there within months, which means that you’ll very likely not find the best writers to produce their best work that quickly. Good books aren’t created and published overnight.

I’m sure people ask you about trends all the time, and I’m curious myself. Are there any you’re tired of? Is there anything new you’re excited about?

Every time I think I can’t bear to read another story about a specific horror trope, a new story using that trope excites me with its execution. The freshness is usually in the telling.  It must be, because there are a limited number of plots/themes.

Fearful Symmetries wasn’t themed and you’ve discussed the challenges surrounding marketing an un-themed anthology. How did you approach Fearful Symmetries with that in mind? How was it different from your previous projects other than funding through Kickstarter?

Editorially, I approached it as I do any anthology. I try to make sure I have a variety of tones/plots/themes/types of characters. Both themed and non-themed anthologies have their challenges. In a themed anthology I like to stretch the theme as far as it’ll go in order to 1) push my contributors to experiment and play with the theme and 2) to ensure that the reader (and I) won’t be bored. With a non-themed anthology the challenge is wrangling what comes in (something one does with a themed anthology as well), into some sort of form that works as a whole. I’ve edited other non-themed anthologies before: Salon Fantastique (with Terri Windling), The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Inferno (the latter was horror and a multi-award winner).

This month I’m writing an essay about the use of fear in children’s literature. Specifically why adults feel the need to censor kids from scary material. You’ve edited several YA anthologies. What considerations do you take into account when choosing stories for young readers?

I’ve never edited a horror anthology for children or young adults and I don’t have an interest in doing so for that very reason. I believe for very young readers you have to pull your punches. I grew up when there was no such thing as young adult literature. I read children’s books and stories then moved on to adult books and stories. So for anyone over sixteen or seventeen I see no difference in what they can read. Some stories I publish will be better comprehended and appreciated by adults, but I think older teens should be able to read whatever they want.

I’ve co-edited three middle grade (for 8-12 year olds) anthologies of fairy tales with Terri Windling. The stories were shorter than we’d usually publish and were for the most part less dense, but a few of them dealt with mature subjects like the death of a child and deadly sibling rivalry.

Fairy tales are often dark and Kate Bernheimer, who is contributing with us this month and who is also an esteemed anthology editor, has spent her career examining the genre. How do you perceive fairy tales in their contemporary moment? There have been a number of dark retellings lately; does horror allow for a fresh take on an old story?

Terri and I co-edited six award-winning retold adult fairy tale anthologies published between 1993-2000 (beginning with Snow White, Blood Red) helping to spur the revival of the form, taking our cue from the stories of Angela Carter and Tanith Lee. Our intention was to put back the sexuality and violence that was removed by those who thought fairy tales were intended for children. In addition, many of the stories represent a more feminist viewpoint, providing agency to women that was not allowed in the original versions of the tales.

Fairy tales continue to be fertile base material for infinite variations, dark and light. That will never change.

Horror has many familiar tropes, but often the surreal is used to enhance what is frightening about a situation or person. Do you agree? Which is scarier, the surreal or the realistic?

I think you mean the supernatural rather than the surreal. The supernatural is just one subgroup of horror, as are psychological horror, terror tales, body horror, etc. Psychological horror and terror tales are based in reality and generally remain there.

But even supernatural fiction must be realistic enough for the reader to suspend her disbelief—at least while reading the story, or that story just won’t be effective. Ghost stories such as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House with its ghosts—real or unreal—that affect the events within the house, are as terrifying as any serial killer.

Surreal fiction (something quite different from supernatural fiction) can sometimes cross over the border into horror, depending on whether the weirdness is just odd and absurd or whether it can be characterized as grotesque.

Some excellent writers of the surreal/grotesque who often wander into  the territory of horror are Helen Marshall, Brian Evenson, and Jeff VanderMeer. But in my experience, the surreal often drains the horror out of a situation, possibly because the story is less realistic, and more absurd.

When you’re not reading in the horror/sf/speculative genres, what do you like? What (or who) are you reading now?

I rarely have time to read anything other than horror because of my annual Best Horror of the Year, which in addition to reprinting stories, contains an overview of the field. But there are a handful of friends whose novels I read no matter what: Elizabeth Hand, William Gibson, and Jonathan Carroll.

I enjoy dark crime novels, that if they’re dark enough, I can jam into my summary of the year. I’m currently reading Kim Newman’s An English Ghost Story. Next up is William Gibson’s new novel The Peripheral.


  • Annie Neugebauer

    October 22, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Wow, this is a fantastic interview! Smart questions and great answers. I really enjoyed this.

  • MastersReview

    October 22, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Thank you Annie. It was an honor to interview her. Such a talent.

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