Words: Brody Rossiter
C. Robert Cargill’s writing career began as a film critic contributing reviews to various high-profile websites. Nearly fifteen years later, the writer once best known under his pseudonym, Massawyrm, is one of horror storytelling’s most vital voices.
After Cargill and screenwriting partner Scott Derrickson struck a refreshingly scary chord deep in darkest reaches of cinematic audiences’ psyches with 2012’s Sinister – merging contemporary demon curated super 8 snuff with classical bogeyman chills – the multi-talented Texan parlayed his horror flick triumph into pursuing his life-long ambition of becoming a novelist, releasing his first book, Dreams and Shadows, early this year. Cargill’s nefarious urban fairy tale drew upon twisted fantasy and fiendish folklore, proving a great success with audiences and fiction lovers alike.
Now Cargill is back with his ambitious and equally devious sequel to Dreams and Shadows’ tale of two haunted journeys from adolescence to adulthood, Queen of Dark Things. FILM IN WORDS talks internet horrors, video game adaptations, and comic-book origins with the wordsmith.
Your work has a very evocative and developed sense of mythology, have you enjoyed having more opportunity to explore your storytelling ideas over the space of two books as opposed to a two-hour film?
Absolutely. The great thing about film is its accessibility and structure. People achieve this awesome Zen state when watching films that allows you to convey ideas and emotions in small, subtle ways that you can struggle a whole book trying to achieve. But it can be equally restrictive at times. With books you are usually dealing with an audience willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, who will afford you the time to put all of your pieces on the board slowly before you move them into position. You can take a chapter or two to delve into someone’s backstory so that everything they do makes sense to the audience. Readers also enjoy when you play around with structure and try something new. Film audiences tend to abhor that kind of thing and it can ruin their experience. Novels really have allowed me to play around with things a movie never could. I’m blessed that I get to play with both mediums.
How do you feel your time as a film critic helped you make the transition to screenwriter and novelist?
The biggest advantage came from the daily grind of working online. You have to write, day in, day out, five days a week in that environment (critics tend to get Friday’s and Saturday’s off.) I actually still work on that schedule. I begin writing on Sunday night and work through Thursday, only working weekends when a deadline is looming closer than it should. But I really did use my ten years as a critic to study storytelling. That was my goal the whole time. A lot of hopefuls use the career to develop connections in the industry. I used it to argue, publicly, how story works and how audiences react to different stimuli. I learned a lot from the folks who argued with me, both professional and amateur, and paid plenty of attention to how crowds reacted to the films they were watching and what they said about it afterward. Every bit of that experience goes into every self-argument I have over the storytelling decisions I make.
As somebody who is aware of the conflict between telling an original story and writing for a wider audience, how much does that knowledge influence your storytelling? And does that process differ greatly between screenwriting and producing your novels?
Chiefly I’ve learned that the audience always comes first. The audience wants to be entertained. They have expectations. The trick to writing something original is to meet those expectations in ways that the audience isn’t expecting. With Sinister we did several things you weren’t supposed to do, especially in a horror film. Several of the studios were interested in the film…if we were willing to change the ending. It made them nervous. But we knew that by meeting the major expectations of the audience, they were willing to accept the sorts of things that made folks uneasy. We were able to introduce something new into something that felt familiar. I tend to approach both formats with the same mind-set: give the audience what they want and they’ll let me try something new. But readers really are far more liberal when it comes to these sorts of things, so you can really play around quite a bit more and be a bit more.
You clearly have a great talent for scaring people, do you ever find it challenging knowing that your work as a novelist won’t have the advantage and immediate shock-factor of appearing as an image upon a cinema screen?
Not at all. The most scared I’ve ever been was when I was reading a particularly gripping horror story. The amount of care and skill it takes to put that single image on the screen is equal to the amount of work that it takes to craft it on the page. They’re very different skill sets, but equally challenging. The frustrating part is knowing that certain ideas will simply work better on the screen and that it might take a hell of a lot of convincing for someone to let me do it. With books you can just write it and the proof is in the pudding. With a film, sometimes you just have to “see it” to know it works.
Horror is a very reactionary and often oversaturated genre of storytelling, how do you feel about the current state of horror, and is it ever difficult to remain both unique and relevant to modern audiences?
To be perfectly honest, the biggest problem with horror is the audience. They constantly complain that everything is the same and that they’re being subjected to sequel after sequel, but then they’ll ignore really great original movies because they can’t quite figure it out from the trailer and don’t want to take a chance on it, only to plop down money on opening day to see a sequel to what they saw instead. When Sinister was a hit, the producers didn’t come to us and say “What new idea do you have for us that we can put FROM THE MAKERS OF SINISTER on?” They said “What’s the idea for the sequel?” And these are great people who would much rather make something new. But sequels pay the bills so they can take chances on first time horror outings like Sinister to begin with. That being said, I honestly believe that horror is the last great, truly pure genre out there.
Think about what gets people into theatres. With science fiction, fantasy, and action, it is all about big set pieces and special effects. No one wants to see a low-budget indie action film, and great science fiction like Moon gets ignored at the box office. With romantic comedies and dramas it is all about the big name cast. Audiences don’t want to see two nobodies fall in love; they want to watch celebrities fall in love. But with horror, you don’t need recognizable actors or big budgets; you just need a good story. People see a trailer and say “Oooh, that looks creepy,” or “That looks like an interesting story,” and it can make just as much opening weekend as the bigger budget films, often making its budget back several times over. When I’m in meetings about horror movies, no one asks me about the “trailer moments” that will sell the film, but they do when I’m talking about science fiction or fantasy. I think that’s why there’s a big glut of it right now. It’s cheap and talented filmmakers can really play around with cool ideas and interesting performances. Sadly it also means that a lot of it, especially really inventive stuff, gets ignored for those films with larger marketing campaigns and numbers after their title.
What are some of Dreams and Shadows and Queen of Dark Things’ greatest influences, and do they span several mediums?
Folklore, chiefly. The entire series is about the stories we tell and how they’re reflections of who we really are. Early Clive Barker and Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men are both intrinsic to the DNA of both books. Stephen King’s ability to make you care for a character exactly two paragraphs before you kill them is definitely something that permeates them as well. But the biggest influence comes from Neil Gaiman who I met and discussed the first book with as a young writer (this was ’99. The book was a long time coming.) It was at a convention in which he first read The Dream Hunters. This was back when he was still claiming it was based on a Japanese fairy tale. At the time the ideas for these books were a disjointed collection of half-baked concepts, but Gaiman gave me the final pieces during our talk and upon hearing him read. The idea that I could tell a modern story in the framework of a fairy tale was a revelation and everything about the first book evolved into what it is from that.
You’re currently working on the Deus Ex Movie adaptation with Scott Derrickson, often video game adaptations struggle to translate onto cinema screens and can alienate both cinemagoers and gamers, what challenges have you faced?
Mostly just the reaction from people who hate video game movies. Almost all of them are unwatchable messes. But Deus Ex comes from the most recent generation of gaming which is far more involved when it comes to story. Until late last decade, story in video games was meant only as a framework for which to catapult you into gameplay. Now most gameplay has become homogenised (much to the chagrin of many gamers) with story becoming the primary focus. Adapting a great story like Deus Ex was less about how to make it work as a movie and more about which awesome elements do we have to cut and how to we shorthand the purposes they served into a two-hour narrative. I think we’re about to enter a golden age of great video game movies, chiefly because video game companies are telling such great stories now.
There are many journalists, bloggers, and critics out there how would love to also one day become novelists, what advice would you give them for achieving that goal?
Treat every day on the job like it is a day of post-graduate college work. Learn from your audience; treat their comments like they’re grades on a paper rather than written by idiots who disagree with you. Sure, the internet is dark and full of horrors, and yes, some people will knock you around just because they can, but there’s a lot you can learn from the people who will one day, hopefully, be your readers. Listen to them long enough and you’ll hear their voices in your head when it comes time to make tough story decisions. Otherwise, just keep writing. The skills you’re developing now will pay off in spades in the long run. The ability to fire off a 1000 word piece in under an hour to make a deadline comes in handy when your aim is to write 2000 words a day on a novel.
Queen of Dark Things is available in physical and digital format now.