Monday, September 20, 2010

[Reviwer Time] Sharon Ring from Dark Fiction Review

Blog: Dark Fiction Review
Founder: Sharon Ring
First Post: January, 2009

Genres: Horror, Dark Fiction

From the Chick Herself: Welcome to Dark Fiction Review. This blog was originally started to review horror novels and short stories. It’s expanding a little. You can now find reviews on and interviews with sci-fi and fantasy authors: coverage of book-related events: news of books deals in the genre field.


Harry Markov: Sharon, it’s wonderful to see you here on Temple Library Reviews. Please get comfortable and let’s start at the beginning. Who is Sharon Ring and what does she do, when she is not riding the currents of the Internet?

Sharon Ring: Hey, Harry. Who am I and what do I do away from the internet? Well, at the moment, much of what I do away from the internet is what you end up seeing somewhere online. I’m a book blogger, so I spend a lot of time reading: I’m an editor, so I spend a lot of time reading… there’s a trend here. Other than that, I suppose I could say I love photography; I’m that annoying person at parties who always has the best morning-after blackmail photos. I love cooking as well – I know, a bit boring – I find it very therapeutic. Oh, and gardening, I love to grow my own food.

HM: And in your spare time you drive flying cars, fight orcs in metal bikinis and risk your hair in alien scissor invasions… Yeah, I understand the whole energetic multi-tasking, but unless you have a time manipulating device, I’m baffled as to how you sandwich all.

What sparked your interest towards reading? Though to be honest what I want to know is why you are so, so dark. The word ‘dark’ is liberally used on your blog, so let’s discuss your fondness towards Chthonic darkness in literature. Ok, let me answer this question in two parts. The initial love for books is all down to my mother. Thanks to her I was reading from a VERY young age, anything I could get my hands on, I would read it. I read books which very much shaped my later reading habits. I would devour stories about ghosts, monsters in the closet and under the bed, devils and demons.

I had a fairly messed up childhood so I think the stories I was beginning to grow interested in probably reflected that. I liked reading about kids taken out of their everyday existence, suddenly faced with the possibility of other worlds, the fight between good and evil. I wanted to be the kid who discovered the door to another world beyond the wardrobe or the girl who fought off shape-shifters in an idyllic English countryside.

Perhaps it’s the same for all kids? What’s around us in our childhood; our family, our built environment, our early experiences with school probably gives definition to the books we relish throughout our lives.

The love for horror fiction itself began as I hit puberty. I would hit the local library every weekend and come home armed with stacks of books. Stephen King and Clive Barker were the two authors who shaped my early teens. King personified American horror fiction and Barker’s Books of Blood was, to my young and impressionable mind, the very epitome of British horror. Times change, of course, and tastes develop as the years roll on.

Now, horror is still my first literary love. I don’t see that ever changing. I love other genre fiction and enjoy reading widely. Still, there is something about horror that is never quite fulfilled by other genres. I think this is true of both the downright mean and nasty, visceral horror of say, Carrie (going back to King for a moment) and of more subtle and well-developed horror fiction, such as Meat by Joseph D’Lacey. There is an endless supply of fear out in the world, most of it generated by our own media and most of it unfounded, but deep down we are all scared of something. For you, Harry, that fear might be of spiders: for me it might be getting trapped on the London Underground (real fear, that one). No matter what though, we all have fears, that thing which gives us nightmares and phobias. And that really fascinates me: the nature of fear, how we face those fears and, ultimately, why so many of us are drawn to the things which most terrify.

HM: To me, horror is about genuine emotion, suspense and suspension of disbelief. Check all these boxes and I will have issues with going to bed. It’s fairly easy for me to adopt new fears, because anything, under the right circumstances, can cause fear. So, I definitely agree with the statement that horror is infinite and it’s infinite, because people want to be scared. Apparently, people do need to crap their pants. It’s is a bizarre psychological need. Why do you gather horror has such a hold, when the emotion itself is so negative?

SR: I think there are two reasons for this. The first is the adrenalin rush – it’s a similar rush to that felt by people who insist on bungee jumping, parachuting and mountain climbing. Horror readers love that thrill – it’s exciting and we’re always left wanting more. The second reason is our ability to control that fear – a horror novel, or movie, is one compartmentalized chunk of mean and nasty fiction. We are able to put the book down, leave the cinema or press the stop button on the DVD player – we control the fear and that is quite a powerful feeling for a human to have. We want the thrills but we also want the safe option of being able to control that fear.

HM: You are fairly new to the reviewing scene [class 2009, yay for fresh blood], so do tell: What inspired you to grab a piece of the action?

Boredom! Seriously, Harry, I was spending a great deal of time working from home (I was a researcher and web content editor for a children’s wildlife website at the time) and I needed something to break from the constant flow of the job. I would read constantly and had just begun reading other people’s blogs (the two that first spring to mind are Next Read and My Favourite Books). I looked at these sites and thought that these dudes look like they’re having so much fun, I’d like to try this out. So I did.

I took a break for a while to move house, extricate myself from a seriously messed up relationship and deal with other real world stuff I had going on. I regret that; I feel I missed out on a chance to build the blog’s reputation properly. Still, life has a habit of getting in the way in most unexpected fashion, and now I think I’m getting into the rhythm of it all. I love blogging immensely and couldn’t imagine a time when I’m not blogging in one capacity or another.

HM: With the basic questions out of the way, let’s jump right into the deep. You are an editor for Morrigan Books [pleasure to work with]. What editorial functions do you perform there?

I started off at Morrigan with a couple of proofreading assignments on short stories. I met the editor-in-chief, Mark Deniz, through the magical world of Twitter and after a while he took a chance on me and asked me to give proofing a whirl. I can’t remember how many anthology titles I’ve worked on now, you’d have to ask the boss man, but I can say that I probably most enjoyed working on Dead Souls as I got to proofread the work of Ramsey Campbell (a horror hero of mine – the man is a legend) and it was also where I first came across Gary McMahon and Kaaron Warren (two extremely talented authors). I think it was during that time I realized I had found my niche: something clicked, felt right, and so I’ve been with Morrigan ever since.

I’ve recently completed my first full-length novel edit and that was such an education. When it’s your own material (be it a novel or a blog) and you’re self-editing, there is no loss of control for the writer. For a writer to finish a piece of work then hand it over to an editor, man, it must be nerve-wracking to let go of your baby. From my point of view, as the editor, I feel a little nervous as well. You are literally taking apart a story, questioning each sentence, each plotline and character and that’s a hell of a responsibility. You owe it to yourself as an editor to do the best job possible but you also have to keep the author’s vision in mind, it’s their baby after all.

HM: And you’ve not been corrupted by the ultimate powers that editorship granted you? That is so noble [btw I give you a few novel edits, before you turn to the dark side]. In all seriousness, I want to know what the thrill is. What aspects of editing do you love?

SR: I love the mechanics of words. I like the way they appear when written in longhand, when typed, when spoken and when heard. That is something which has fascinated me since childhood. I spoke with my mum recently and told her about this interview which sparked off a lengthy conversation about my early years. I would copy the words in books and newspapers, messily to begin with but gaining confidence and dexterity after a short while. By the time I started school I was able to write short, one-page stories and would often get frustrated by my inability to express myself as well as my teachers. That love of words has always been with me then and has now become part of what I do for a living – playing with words.

HM: I am betting that you have read a lot of slush since your start as an editor. What is the worst thing you have ever read? Or, well, the worst type of things you have read…

No slush at Morrigan, Harry, it’s all fresh and crispy! Ok, well, I don’t get to read Morrigan’s slush pile. It’s not something which has been needed yet though I have no doubt I’d enjoy doing something like that. Can you imagine being the person to find the next big horror, sci-fi or fantasy giant? That’d be such a buzz.

Some of the worst stuff I’ve read has been related to the books which have come my way through blogging. Bloggers are very privileged in being sent books which occasionally have months to go before they hit the bookshelves. No matter how much we play it down we all get a little excited when the postman arrives with extra mail. So, apart from the books we buy ourselves or swap between fellow bloggers, these books arrive and we don’t know just what we’re going to find inside those parcels. Mostly, we’re amazed and delighted and those books inspire glowing, well-considered reviews: sometimes, the book is not so good, we see faults and the review still goes online but with hesitation on the part of the reviewer. And then there are the really bad books: the ones which are so poorly written, they make us cringe as we drag ourselves through to the bitter end, wishing we could return to a time before the bookish badness. I think, for most bloggers, these books are rare. But it happens, it happened to me twice last year and once this year.

HM: Which begs the question why rubbish gets published? To an extent, someone’s gold is bound to be someone else’s allergy, but even with this in mind, there are published books, which are universally panned by critics. It’s even worse, when such books become bestsellers. I won’t mention names, because it’s irrelevant and for each reader it’s an individual quest to boggle at the bestseller lists. What’s your take?

I don’t bother with most of the bestsellers. Much of what gets onto those lists is down to marketing, not actual quality of writing. The exception would probably be crime writing; there are some excellent crime writers out there. As for rubbish, that really depends on what you mean when you use that word. Do you mean the stories themselves are rubbish? Or do you mean the stories are poorly edited and somewhat incoherent as a result of this? Good and bad story-telling is a very subjective thing – what I enjoy and deem to be good might be something you can’t abide. One thing I will say is that if readers continue to accept and spend money on poorly written novels, then the publishing industry will continue to release those books.

HM: To jump from one topic to another, help me differentiate horror from dark fiction. As far as I know, horror and dark fiction are two separate genre entities, but I am clueless to where one ends and another begins. Call me a noob.

SR: Dude! Your guess is as good as mine. I can only tell you what the difference is from my point of view and even that’s not an overly reliable interpretation as my ideas develop and change with time. I’ll try though.

To me, for many years, horror and dark fiction would have meant one and the same. Horror is, by definition, a dark and dangerous road. If horror were about happy families and idealized lives, it would no longer be horror, would it? Horror must explore under all the beds, the unlit basements and deserted streets to draw out the fear we experience when we read a horror story. Now, exchange the word horror for dark fiction: it fits, doesn’t it? I think, though, that the term dark fiction is beginning to be less about the element of horror and more about something else. What that something else is as yet, I do not know, but I will say I think it involves that most recent addition to the world of sub-genre definitions – dark fantasy.

In the UK, we have a chain of bookstores called Waterstones. They have recently jiggled their genre sections around, lumping sci-fi and fantasy together, giving horror a little mini-section of its own and then adding a whole new section entitled Dark Fantasy. One look at these shelves will show you a sub-genre dominated by the two big names in modern vampire fiction – Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyer. Now, are these books dark in any sense of the word as I understand it? No, certainly not in the case of Meyer and, despite being bloody and visceral in abundance, neither is Harris’s work. Strangely, in the general fiction section of the same chain of bookstores these two writer’s titles can be found under a different heading – Paranormal Romance.

I think this says a lot about how we label genre fiction. There’s a distinct lack of consistency around and what I might define as dark fiction in regard to a title may well be defined as dystopian sci-fi by the next person. See what I mean? It’s occasionally confusing and can engender a whole world of heated debate, especially when it comes to genre fiction awards. The definitions have become thoroughly blurred and while this may mean defining dark fiction in ways I occasionally find quite ridiculous, it also means, I believe, that genre fiction writers are themselves redefining what it means to write in this field. The talented writers out there, and there’s some excellent genre work out there right now, are getting everyone in a spin trying to fit their work into a neat little genre box. Is it horror, dark fantasy or, perhaps, urban fantasy? Sorry, going off on a tangent here. Next question!

HM: Eager to oblige. With this next question I will touch upon genre, again. Are genres helpful [in light of your previous statement] and do you agree that perhaps genres are fossils left from past literary movements? I read that last one on Damien G Walter’s blog, so I am curious what people think about genre.

I think the idea of genre can be helpful but only in the vaguest of senses. When we are so determined to stick a label on something as being one form of genre and not another, we do this at our peril. It narrows the author’s potential to reach out to new readers: it factionalises the many different faces of genre to the point where one single book causes quite ridiculous arguments as to whether it is sci-fi, fantasy or crime (I’m thinking MiĆ©ville here) and in terms of garnering interest from mainstream readers, the very idea of reading something labeled as genre is a big no-no. Of course, there is a flipside to everything I’ve just said. It means the reader knows exactly what he’s getting when he chooses a title: it makes for lively debate within the genre arena and, for a mainstream reader moving into genre, it makes it easier for them to find the sort of books which might interest them. Not a particularly helpful answer, is it, but then the whole field of genre is rife with such contradictions.

I read Damien’s article – some excellent thoughts in there. How does a particular form of genre come into existence. You have stuff like New Weird, which was a conscious movement, but it can’t all happen like that, surely? Organic growth must play a part in it as well. I’ve been wondering lately what role publishers have in this – I keep envisioning brainstorming meetings with lots of excited geeks in suits coming up with new sub-genres!

HM: Not a long while ago, Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen called in nominations for the worst bloggers as a counter measure to celebrations such as Blogger Appreciation Week. What’s your stance on awards given to bloggers and festivities that mesh into love fests?

I saw that on Twitter, very funny. Oddly, I’ve been judging for the BBAW stuff. Not because I believe in awards as such, just because it’s something I haven’t tried before and wanted to see what was involved in the process. What makes a blog “good” or “bad” and just who is qualified to pass judgement on that? I may be judging one section of these awards, but who’s to say my opinion is worth shit? There are so many excellent blogs out there and, if I was of a mind to take these award things seriously, then the blogs I’d like to see getting real recognition are not the blogs which would ever put themselves forward for such trivialities. At best, it’s a bit of fun and silliness and everyone enjoys a little of that once in a while: at worst, it’s a closeted, incestuous setup by people with a troubling need to gain recognition for their blog at all costs. I don’t know, this is still all quite fresh for me; I’m quite interested in watching the process unfold and especially interested in seeing how much people are swayed by the eventual decisions.

HM: Also, in the same vein, what traits in a blog do you rate negatively? What repels you in a review blog?

Hmm, I’m not overly fond of flowery, girlish blogs. I have no desire to be bombarded with flounce and frills: I think it detracts from what is often a well-written review or interview.

I don’t like to see lots of ads either. I fully understand we all need money in our wallets and earning through blogging is one way of topping up on our incomes but a blog filled with ads is usually guaranteed to send me scuttling off.

I appreciate bloggers who really take the time to check their content for spelling and grammar mistakes before posting. I think, when I get to someone’s blog, my editor’s head kicks in and I notice the mistakes rather quickly. If the content is otherwise well-written and engaging then it’s not too bad, you can look past spelling mistakes and concentrate on the good stuff.

HM: Okay, okay. Enough with the hard questions. Here is an easy one for you. What makes you fall in love with a novel?

SR: There’s no simple answer to this question, Harry. Each book I read I connect with in a different way.

In one book, it may be the language itself; I love prose that lingers a while, plays with imagery and concepts, rather than constantly having to dash ahead to the next bit of action.

In another book it might be a character I strongly identify with. Well-crafted characters are such a delight to read: they’re not just plodding through the narrative, they shape it and move it. More importantly, when you find a character who reminds you a little of yourself or someone you know, you become that bit more invested in their story. You want them to survive, to beat the bad guys and overcome their problems.

HM: Novels or short stories? Why? Simple. Right? Right.

SR: Novels. No, short stories. No, no, novels. Definitely novels. Or short stories. Yes, short stories. And really, Harry, what about novellas and flash fiction?

I love it all. I go through phases of reading one form more than others but no one form is better than another.

Why is it beneficial to read both? I have read [at Damien G Walter’s again] that shorts capture the small genre fluctuations in the now. They chart momentary changes and eventual directions for the genre. True, not true.

It’s neither beneficial, nor harmful. It’s up to the reader’s individual tastes. That said, I know plenty of people who read novels yet barely ever read short stories: the same is not true in reverse. I’d agree with Damien in short stories charting momentary changes: writing them is a great way to try out new ideas without committing to a full-length novel. I guess, that being the case, that short stories do pave the way for eventual directions in genre. Seriously, that’s not something I’d given much consideration to before now. He’s a wise one, that Damien.

HM: You are doing your own Angry Robot books love-fest [thumbs up]. Congratulations on that. I have to ask though, what prompted you to start this initiative?

SR: I’ve decided I enjoy running themed blog posts. They’re good fun and it gives you a chance to focus on something/someone that really interests you.

Angry Robot are one of those somethings that really interest me. Two of the authors on their list, Gary McMahon and Kaaron Warren, are two of the best genre writers around at the moment and I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to spend time blogging about their publishers. On top of that, there is Angry Robot itself. Angry Robot are cool, what more can I say?

HM: As a horror fan, tell me. What is horror in movies doing wrong these days? I’m neither scared, nor am I grossed out or disturbed like I was before. I am a scaredy-cat, so I’m not as jaded. So, I assume that movies are doing something wrong.

SR: Simple answer: remakes. That’s the cause of almost all their woes. They need to stop stealing their ideas from abroad and start looking for new talent.

You seem so involved with the literary scene. Have you considered writing fiction?

I do write fiction. I’m just too scared to put it “out there”.

HM: It’s been a most pleasurable interview. Feel free to finish in your own words.

Erm, Thanks, Harry. It’s been a pleasure.

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