An interview with horror writer Jonathan Janz
The author of more than a dozen books of horror and suspense, prolific author Jonathan Janz seems long-overdue to break into the mainstream readership realms of King, Koontz, Barker, joining the ranks of modern bestselling horror authors such as Paul Tremblay, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Riley Sager, and Josh Malerman.
With a new publishing deal from Flame Tree Press / Simon and Schuster that has repackaged and re-released his catalogue-to-date, and already incredibly popularity in the niche horror field, Janz has the talent and consistency to stretch his passionate fanbase and establish himself as a new heavy-hitter of genre fiction.
Janz’s newest novel, The Raven, published today, is a dystopian slipstream, melding the genres of horror, action and thriller into a riotous and wildly-entertaining amalgam of a story that feels both simultaneously trope and completely fresh.
In The Raven, a mysterious chemical accident leads to a global reengineering of human DNA, giving each person a unique—and literally monstrous—alternate persona they can turn into at will or, in some cases, against their will. Janz’s hero is a rare type that has no alternate, supernatural Hyde-esque persona, and must rely on wits and all-too-human strength to survive in this new, fascinating world.
Janz talked to us about the new novel, his existing catalog of novels, and what he has planned for the future.
Q: Having read a good number of your titles, it seemed to me that The Raven is a departure of sorts from the more traditional horror novels you’ve released to date. I’d almost describe it as dystopian / urban fantasy. Do you consider it a departure?
JANZ: I think you’re right in the novel being quite different than my other fare. It’s my first post-apocalyptic novel, it contains more action. But I feel like horror is a vast umbrella that’s constantly expanding, and while you’re right in saying this could be could also be considered urban fantasy, I see horror as so expansive that I think The Raven fits well under that label as well.
I wrote the book partially because of a Metallica cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Astronomy,” partially because of my admiration for Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and also because of the relentlessness of Mad Max: Fury Road. Those ingredients captivated me and compelled me to write The Raven. And that’s when I write any story—when it demands to be told.
Q: Dystopian novels reboot the world as we know it, whether it be through zombies or a deadly virus or mysterious creatures that turn folks insane. In The Raven, you spin this a bit by adding a layer of regeneration. It feels less like the “end of all things” and more like an evolution of our species. Would you agree?
JANZ: That’s a fascinating question. For me, I think this story is a stripping away of societal niceties and laying bare what’s lurking beneath; it’s also a warning about where we’re heading. I think the monstrous society in the novel could, over a long period of time, evolve into the society we know now, but that wouldn’t necessarily be cause to celebrate, as society as we know it is sort of awful. The selfishness, the brutality, the base greed…we encounter these things every day in our world. In the world of The Raven they’re allowed to rage, unabated.
Q: In the novel, a freak accident on global scale gives humans the ability to become monsters, seemingly at will. In your mind, are the abilities tied to the person, either via DNA or personality traits, or is it simply random selection?
JANZ: In the majority of cases, the abilities people have in the novel and the transformations they undergo are hardwired into their DNA. However, there’s still an element of volition, as in the case of the cannibals. They don’t need to devour human flesh to survive; like Dez, the main character, they could subsist on small animals, fruits, and vegetables. But because they grow more powerful when they eat flesh, and because they enjoy that superhuman strength and the dominance it brings over others, they choose to kill people. In most other cases—for example, the werewolves—the change is unwanted. It’s physically painful, involves a total loss of control, and invariably creates an aftermath of guilt and carnage.
Q: Following up on the last question, you made the decision to not give your protagonist, Dez, any monstrous abilities. In a way, his need to survive in this new world has transformed him in significant other ways. What made you decide to leave your hero human, as it were, rather than embody him with his own special “power?” Or is it possible he hasn’t found his catalyst yet?
JANZ: It is possible he simply hasn’t found his ability yet, but there’s a very good chance he’s just an ordinary human being. For me, that’s more interesting than if he’d possess some incredible power or talent. Most of my favorite protagonists are underdogs. They’re determined, but they’re vulnerable and afraid and have to overcome those fears.
I think of Indiana Jones. Sure, he’s intelligent, tough, and resourceful, but those traits mainly manifest because of necessity. When Indy fights the shirtless Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he scraps and competes, but he’s clearly overmatched. That’s what makes the scene so compelling and his character so relatable. He cheats a little to gain the upper hand. Wouldn’t most of us do the same thing? And while you could argue the conclusion of that scene (and the movie, for that matter), is sort of decided for him, it’s his tenacity that puts him in the game. I want my protagonists to possess that same tenacity.
Q: A huge chunk of this novel takes place in one location, during one long set piece. And yet you’re able to do a ton of world-building in the first portion of the book. How important was it to you to establish the rules of this new world before letting it fly with a dominant action sequence?
JANZ: I think one challenge of a novel like this—the same challenge, incidentally, that a lot of war movies face—is capturing the large-scale toll while maintaining the intimacy with one’s primary characters. I didn’t want to describe the global destruction in too much detail, but I felt that providing a few anecdotes about the fall of humannkind—for example, the tragic story of a character named Jim—would both equip the reader with a sense of how the world ended while at the same time keeping the story focused on the now and creating the immediacy necessary for a crackling narrative.
Q: You’ve had quite the prolific career so far. Over a dozen novels published, most of which are now available through Flame Tree Press. And I know you have several in the can or in development. Did you ever foresee having this kind of output? And moving forward, can you possibly match your output to date?
JANZ: I always had aspirations toward being this productive, but deep down I doubted my ability to achieve it. Honestly, that’s been a pleasant surprise. Moving forward, I plan on being, if anything, more productive and prolific. Josh Malerman is a dear friend and an endlessly inspiring presence. We communicate daily, and he transfers some of that energy to me and my writing. Hopefully, I reciprocate at least a little.
The point is, people like us really love to tell stories, and the more we do it, the more intoxicated by the process we become. The brainstorming, the writing, the wrong turns, the revelations—we love all of it. And editing is another beast altogether, extremely challenging and indescribably rewarding. So to answer your question, I can’t ever see myself stopping or decelerating. I simply love this too much.
Q: Do you ever see yourself expanding beyond the traditional horror genre? My hunch is there are more stories to be told in the world of The Raven, and I’m curious if you have designs on more fantasy, or even sci-fi?
JANZ: There are definitely more Raven stories to tell, and I can’t wait to return to that world. I do plan on writing both fantasy and sci-fi, but when I tackle those genres there’ll be an element of horror in them. The glorious thing about horror is that it can creep up anywhere. For instance, an upcoming book I’ve written for Cemetery Dance is a historical horror story set in 1925 England. The backdrop is very like Downton Abbey, but it’s absolutely a horror story. Similarly, I think it would be exhilarating to tackle a horror story painted on a fantasy canvas. I’ve already planned a sci-fi/horror novel called The Lucifer, and at some point in the future I’d like to write a romance-centric horror novel, a sports-related horror novel, and many others. The possibilities are endless.
Q: Lastly, can you let readers know what you having coming up? And when will we be seeing some of your work adapted to other mediums, specifically film and television?
JANZ: The aforementioned historical horror novella (which is almost novel-length) from Cemetery Dance is called The Dismembered and will likely be published in 2021. I’ve finished and edited both the Children of the Dark sequel and a creepy horror/mystery called Marla. I’ve begun a new novel and have finished two other rough drafts that I’ll be editing this winter: Halloween Gods (a coming-of-age tale) and Amity (a suspense/thriller homage to Jaws).
Regarding film and television, I’ve got the best manager in the world in Ryan Lewis (an executive producer of Bird Box), who, along with Josh Malerman, is half of the Spin a Black Yarn production company. Ryan is brilliant, patient, imaginative, and tireless. In the short time we’ve been working together I’ve learned more from him than anyone else in the book or movie/TV industry. He just finished guiding me through the process of writing my first screenplay, and we’re currently at work on a pilot script for a potential series. Both projects are adaptations of my novels. Obviously, the film/TV world is competitive, but at this point I’m just focused on learning as much as I can and enjoying the process. Screenwriting is a different beast than writing novels, but it’s no less rewarding.