Dec '99

Kerri North Meets England's Most Exciting New Horror Writer, Joseph Freeman...

Joseph Freeman is softly spoken, impeccably dressed and well mannered. At home in England, whenever the press run a story on him, they always find it hard to believe that this seemingly inoffensive young artist is a horror writer.

'Whenever somebody is interviewing you' he tells me 'whether it's for TV, radio, newspaper, whatever, they always have this pre-conceived idea of what you are, even if they've never met you before - and that is what they want to present their audience with in the few minutes of air time or the column inches that they have.' And writing the kind of stuff he does, presumably he has a particularly hard time of it? 'If you've made your name as a horror writer, this reporter doesn't want to hear about your love for art or opera. They want to hear some dark secret form your past so they can do some dumb psychological profile on you, and it's a kind of smug I-told-you-so then between them and their audience. I much prefer being interviewed for hardcore genre publications, because then they really see past the image to the person you actually are.'

'Just after Love Stories of the Undead was released, I had an interview with a press reporter in England who I thought was a really decent guy, and we talked for ages about my interests and ambitions and inspirations and I was expecting a refreshingly intelligent piece to appear in print. But at the photo session they led me down beneath the press building into these dark sub-basements, then got me in a shadowy corner with floodlights on the ground shining up at my face, asked me to look spooky and then told me that I looked like Dracula. When the picture was printed, I realised how true that was. And the article went on, misquoting a load of things I'd said and telling everyone how I liked to read Stephen King books in a darkened room during a thunderstorm. Quite apart from the fact that my eyes don't actually glow red and enable me to see in the dark, at that point I hadn't read any Stephen King books for at least six years.'

Though he is obviously keen to avoid becoming any kind of cliché, Joseph is remarkable candid about his upbringing. He speaks of a miserable childhood, an alcoholic and abusive father, which led to him developing bipolar illness throughout his teenage years. 'That really ruined my life. It's made it extremely difficult for me to form new relationships with people, as I've pretty much had my faith in human nature destroyed. Even now I find it hard to be anything other than suspicious of people, and to form lasting friendships.'

Joseph puts his artistic habits down to a solitary childhood, spent on the dreary city streets. Though he had older brothers and sisters, the age gap was such that he felt like an only child, but without the additional parental attention. He grew up in an unstable and argumentative household, and says that he never really grew out of his fantasy escape-routes.

'I don't know that writing was necessarily a way of escaping what was going around me. Maybe it was, though I certainly think it's something every kid does. When I went off to school I saw how people around me reacted to these talents that I had, and made use of them. I'd gross people out with my over-the-top gruesome stories, which my teachers and I found hilariously funny, and I'd sell pictures to classmates that I'd drawn, a lot of the time on commission.

By the time I got to High School some friends and I were producing a comic book called Dark Angel, which got quite a following and we even wanted to make a student film of it, but never got around to. After that I did something called The Midnight Hour, which never really took off, and then of course came Scared To Death'

From its humble beginnings, Freeman's horror fiction magazine Scared to Death brought him fame, recognition, and a huge following over the course of its seven-year run. At first the magazine was cobbled together from stories culled from other publications with no regard to copyright and from reprints of tales by professional writer friends of Joseph. Gradually, it built up a following and became one of the most popular fiction magazines around, both in the UK and here in the US. Regularly pulling in contributions from big name authors, it also featured non-fiction by paranormal investigator Dave Toast and artwork by Desmond Knight.    

Sadly, in 1999, Scared to Death came to a halt. 'It had a good run, but these things always end sooner or later. The pressure builds up and you realise it's all getting very stressful. My writing career was taking off at this point and I was working on the last stages of Love Stories of the Undead, with a view to starting a novel. We went out on a high note, though, and I think we definitely made our mark.'    

Valentine's Day 1999 saw the publication of Joseph's first book - the dark fantasy collection Love Stories of The Undead. The book featured the best of Freeman's short fiction and was beautifully designed by the author himself and illustrated by the much-praised artist Steve Lines. After a successful launch in Manchester, sales soared and the reviews were generally very positive. What surprised Joseph most of all though was the fan-mail he received from the readers. 'The fans are wonderful, they really are. I've had such brilliant letters from people who've read the book and when you realise how much pleasure it has given them, it makes all the struggle worthwhile. My particular favourite is one guy in Kent who's read the book a couple more times each time he writes to me. It must be into double figures by now.' Not quite so good was the time he was approached on the street by a woman in her thirties who was eager to tell him how much she had enjoyed the book. 'Her favourite story was Crimson Lips, which was about a guy who had a morbid fear of women's genitalia - the old vagina dentatis theme of the thing growing teeth and biting him. So all throughout this story I put these bits in like The pussy is your friend, it's not going to hurt you, and all this. Somehow this lady had come to the conclusion, despite several graphic scenes to the contrary, that this favourite story of hers was about a man who was afraid of cats, and she absolutely loved it!'

Did he explain her mistake? 'No! I mean, how could I? This was a grown woman who genuinely had no idea. But as long as the story gave her some form of pleasure, who cares what it's about?' So far, US readers have found it quite hard to get hold of Joseph Freeman's work, other than that which has appeared in various magazines and collections and on the Internet. But other than import copies of his books, nothing has been specifically released over here. 'There's talk of something appearing just for the American readers,' he reveals 'It's going to be some of the favorites from Love Stories of the Undead mixed in with some stuff that's not even been read yet in the UK. Don't ask me when it's going to appear though, as I literally have no idea. I don't even know what the title will be yet, though it's either The Eater of Worlds and Those Less Hungry or Inhuman Nature.'

At the moment he is busying himself with several other projects. 'I'm working like an absolute bastard at the moment. I've got a new novel underway, collaboration being written, a non-fiction collection of essays. I'm on a Psychology course, teaching part-time, which really keeps my feet on the ground, and involved in all the hassles of buying a new home. But I'm the type of guy who brings it all on himself, I work best under pressure. Oh… and there's the new book…'

The new book in question is the exciting new novella The Man Who Killed an Angel, being trumpeted as his best work yet and likely to receive various award nominations. 'It's an incredibly intensely dark piece of fiction. It enters into the mind of a killer and will make a lot of people uncomfortable when they find themselves relating to various parts of it. It's something I've wanted to write for a good long while now, but only got around to after finishing my last novel. I'm proud of it; the fans seem to like it, quite apart from which the ending is the greatest in the history of English literature. I'd like to write more of that kind of dark, psychological thriller in the future. Stuff like Thomas Harris' last three novels, which were fantastic.'

But before The Man Who Killed an Angel and after Love Stories of the Undead, there was another book - an epic dark fantasy novel titled Those Left Behind, which has still yet to be published anywhere. 'The book was asked for by Orion, a huge publisher at the moment, but then they dropped all their horror writers, which was a bit of a shock. Headline picked up on it for a while but then decided it wasn't what they were after. James Herbert's publishers over here - Macmillan - raved about my writing but couldn't take it on because their lists were very heavily committed for a while.

'To be honest, stuff like that is part and parcel of the whole writing business and you can't afford to get disheartened at any time, especially when you've already built up a fanbase who're there to support you through their letters or at various events you travel to across the country. And horror is seeing a bit of a depression in England currently, with even top-name writers like Ramsey Campbell or Mark Morris unable to get their latest novels published. I can only hope it improves before too long, but in the meantime I'm taking the opportunity to write some different things. I'll never give up horror altogether though, but I like to be able to change direction, in much the same way a filmmaker does. Film fans go and see a Spielberg movie, or a Kubrick movie, no matter what it's about because they expect a good story. We should have more of that in written fiction instead of keeping everything into its categories and attaching labels to everything. What does it matter if it's horror or if it's romance, so long as it's really entertaining?'

By the sound of it, Freeman doesn't have any set path he has dedicated himself to. Instead he just picks up on whatever interests him as an artist and as a person. 'I'm constantly changing my ideas. A year ago I didn't want to write for TV, now I'm looking to script some kind of drama before the year is out. As a matter of fact, I've also done some TV and video work quite recently, on both sides of the camera and it looks as though I'll be acting in an upcoming TV movie. I've written quite a few songs over the years for different bands, and play music myself. I love to explore all areas of the arts - music, painting, written word. There's so much wonderful stuff out there that it's a shame and nothing short of ignorance to close yourself off to it.'

What does he do to relax? 'I can't quite remember what relaxing is!' he laughs. 'Erm, Christ, I like travel. I like going to new places and doing new things. I like spending time with friends, just talking for hours on end and being with genuinely decent people. I quite like eating out, going to see movies. I enjoy walking in the countryside, listening to music or reading, learning new stuff.' He thinks for a while. 'Yeah, new experiences. Life's got a lot there to be learned, and you should never stop. You never know everything there is to know, and you can always improve yourself and your life.'

Strangely absent from his list was that thing about reading Stephen King books in a dark room during a thunderstorm…


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