The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas

Anthologies are over the place (for which writers are grateful, because, hey –someplace to send those short stories), and just as every novel has a genesis, so too does every anthology have a small nugget of inspiration… followed by the slog of actually getting the damn thing out. Nick Mamatas, co-editor of the new Haunted Legends horror anthology, is here to give you an editor’s-eye view of the anthology-building process, from idea to completion, and what it really takes to put out these story collections so many of us love so well.


For many a horror writer, there is no holiday season quite so wonderful as Halloween. The trees turn skeletal and the nights long, the lawns of the neighborhood are decorated with plastic and latex spectacles, candy gets somewhat more interesting, and for about six weeks bookstores even pay attention to the genre. For this horror writer, though, Halloween is just tedious. Horror movies aren’t scary, gross costumes and props make me roll my eyes (and often smell funny), and little on this planet is more annoying than someone who thinks he or she is “edgy” because Halloween is a favorite holiday. Yes, all sorts of six-year-old girls rocking pink princess outfits every October 31st are just as edgy. Also, part of my Halloween problem can be found in bookstores—as horror fiction is a hard sell, many stores instead stock volumes of regional “true” ghost stories and local legends for their seasonal displays.

There’s one or more such book for every two-stoplight town and stretch of river. Some of the stories are less regional than universal—every dogleg road has a phantom hitchhiker, there isn’t an old lake in America not filled with the tears of an Indian princess. The better titles offer a bit of local color and photography, though most pictures therein are accompanied by breathless captions that confuse lens flair or dust with the “orbs” that appear in haunted graveyards when believers show up to take snapshots. That’s the major issue with these books of “true” ghost stories; with the very occasional exception (e.g., the wonderful Joseph A. Citro) they’re almost always written by credulous weirdoes. Despite the low quality of this subgenre, the books keep on selling, at least for a month and a half every year.

That was on my mind in the beginning of 2007 when I received a letter from the Horror Writers Association, a group of which I was then a member. They were putting out a mass call for pitches for a new HWA-branded anthology. Years ago, the HWA had a number of anthologies edited by legendary figures such as Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell, but with horror in the doldrums the group was ready for any bright ideas. Mine was simple enough: regional ghost stories/legends written by real writers instead of by the neighborhood kook. We’d call it Haunted Legends. It had a lot of commercial possibilities: major presses publish ghost story books, as do the larger independent and regional houses. If it wouldn’t sell as fiction, we could position the book as non-fiction. And it would fit with those front-of-store dumps that so annoyed me every year.

However, the HWA had a problem with the pitch: I wasn’t famous. (Apparently the group’s publication committee thought only famous people would have good ideas.) Could I find a co-editor? A famous co-editor amongst the members of the Horror Writers Association? Actually, given the number of famous editors in the HWA, this was very easy and I immediately wrote to the best, and indeed, the only sane choice—Ellen Datlow. She was pleased to sign up.

In the end, we didn’t publish Haunted Legends under the HWA aegis. After the HWA, its agent, and its book packager took their cuts, Ellen and I would have been working for the sort of money one more typically makes by stealing the tip jar from a flaming Starbucks.  The HWA has done very well with the other idea that had been developed from that initial call for pitches: the humorous horror anthology Blood Lite. Ellen took the concept to Tor and after the usual delays, we had a deal.

We wanted Haunted Legends to not only feature stories of the highest quality, but to offer stories of all sorts and from around the world. Ellen Datlow’s Rolodex was more than sufficient to guarantee the best stories by the best writers, but to make sure no scary rock was left unturned—and because of a little promise I made to myself when I first started submitting short stories for publication a decade ago—I opened Haunted Legends to unsolicited submissions. I also decided to solicit a few folks that may not be known to readers of horror or ghost stories; experimentalist Lily K. Hoang and the mainstreamish fantasist Carolyn Turgeon were two of the writers I was thrilled to tap.

Reading slush was an experience that revealed certain trends. At around the same time we opened for submissions, I announced that I was moving to California to take a job editing Haikasoru, VIZ Media’s imprint of Japanese SF and fantasy in translation. A few dozen submitters got the idea that Haunted Legends was a book of Japanese ghost stories. I received nine different stories about Hoichi the Earless alone. (We do have a story with a Japanese theme, Catherynne M. Valente’s “15 Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai”, but I didn’t need to read a million of ’em on the way.)

We’d also expressed that we simply didn’t want recitations of local legends, but revisions of the same, a guideline many readers found sufficiently confusing that they just ignored it. And we got some email from cranks who insisted that “ghost stories” had to involve the spirits of deceased somehow bedeviling the living, and so what sort of morons were we to mention, oh, the Jersey Devil in our guidelines? The sort of morons editing our own book, thanks for asking.

In the end, after I shared about twenty-five stories with Ellen—some I liked, some just because the authors were known to us and I thought she should see them—we selected stories from Carrie Laben, John Mantooth, Steven Pirie, and Stephen Dedman for the book. With Dedman, a great writer of dozens of shorts with whom both Ellen and I had previously worked, we kind of slapped our foreheads and said, “Oh, we should have asked him in the first place!” but he was cool with gettin’ down in the slush, thankfully. Laben I’d published in Clarkesworld and was happy to see her work again in my mailbox. Mantooth was also familiar to me—I’d never bought one of his stories for the magazine, but his work always brightened my day and I’d tried to be encouraging in previous rejection letters. I was extremely pleased with “Shoebox Train Wreck.” Steven Pirie had managed to escape my radar entirely until I read his “The Spring Heel” (guess who that one’s about?) despite his publications in Black Static and other venues, so it was a great surprise to find. “This one’s full of whores!” I wrote to Ellen excitedly. “Oh boy!” she wrote back. A fifth story, Erzebet YellowBoy’s “Following Double-Face Woman”, came from Clarkesworld’s slush pile, which goes to show that sometimes editors reject stories based on “fit” rather than quality. YellowBoy’s story didn’t suit CW, but was perfect for Haunted Legends.

Then there were stories by the veteran writers—Ellen and I had little to do other than accept Ramsey Campbell’s “Chucky Comes to Liverpool.”  Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Folding Man” required no editing, just applause and a quick acceptance. We were also very happy to get stories by Gary A. Braunbeck, Kit Reed, Caitlin R. Kiernan and—dare I say those words loathed by anthology contributors everywhere?—many others.

One last treat: perceptive readers may have noticed the ongoing global economic crisis, so Tor will be releasing Haunted Legends simultaneously in hardcover (for collectors, libraries, and people who like to bludgeon others with books) and trade paperback (for the budget-conscious). And the book might even be on a table in the front of a bookstore or two. For me at least, Halloween just got a little happier.


Haunted Legends: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit Nick Mamatas’ LiveJournal. Follow him on Twitter.

9 Comments on “The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas”

  1. Ironically, the first story I bought by Stephen Dedman for an anthology came from my OMNI slushpile. Rob Killheffer found “The Lady of Situations” and although he knew it wasn’t appropriate for OMNI, passed it on to me. And I took it for Little Deaths.

  2. I’ve already got way too many anthologies on my bedside table, but I am totally buying this one for myself for an early Halloween.

  3. “which goes to show that sometimes editors reject stories based on “fit” rather than quality.”

    Absolutely. I know an author who had what he considered to be a second-rate story published in an anthology because the first-rate one he’d sent in was too thematically similar to other stories in the anthology. I’ve read both stories and I agree with his assessment.

    I love your idea. So many ghost stories seem to be retreads of one another that it will be fun to see what good storytellers can do with them.

  4. Looks interesting for sure. Thanks, Nick, for mentioning me in this editor’s-eye view!
    “That’s the major issue with these books of “true” ghost stories; with the very occasional exception (e.g., the wonderful Joseph A. Citro) they’re almost always written by credulous weirdoes.”

  5. Pleased to do it, Mr. Citro. I found out the hard way that I wasn’t well-suited for Vermont, but your books helped me get through my sixteen months in exile in Brattleboro.

  6. I just popped over to amazon and ordered both this book and a couple of books by Mr. Citro. This will be some good “winter evening with a mug of hot tea” reading here in a couple of months. Thanks!

  7. I always like collections of “true” ghost stories. I have a rich oral collection of such tales from my family. Grandparents on both sides loved to scare the little ones with them and I have written some down to scare any grandkids I may be allowed to talk to. Ever think of pitching a collection family tales to a publisher?

%d bloggers like this: