Meeting Grady Hendrix for the first time, it was hard to believe that this pleasant man in a neat suit and salmon pink tie could possibly have authored the horror novels piled on the table beside him. These are books filled with gut-wrenching moments of terror and skin-crawling gore, from the grisly teenage tapeworm extraction in My Best Friend’s Exorcism to the torture of furniture shopping in Horrorstör. His latest novel, We Sold Our Souls, screams of existential dread with the persistency of tinnitus in the ear of an aging metal musician. Yet the man in front of me seemed remarkably normal.
Then Hendrix opened his mouth, and suddenly it made sense.
Hendrix’s speech, like his writing, is incredibly funny, engaging, and heartfelt. It’s also fast. If you have the pleasure of hearing one of his live book talks, try to count how many words he can say per minute without taking a breath. It’s quite impressive. You might even believe he’d sold his soul to obtain the skill.
Hendrix was kind enough to sit down with me at What the Fest!? 2019 here in New York City for an animated chat about Hell, horror fiction, and his recent foray into headbanging.
SCREAM: Right off the bat, let’s talk about Satan.
GRADY HENDRIX: Why not?
Between We Sold Our Souls, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and your screenplay for Satanic Panic, the fires of Hell have been burning pretty consistently through your work. Where do you think that fascination with Satanic themes comes from for you?
Well you know, it’s funny. I grew up in a pretty Christian house, church and Sunday school every week, and so it was always part of my world view. But also, when you start to take things literally, they become really funny. If you take the idea of Hell literally, well, how do we get there? Is it up, is it down, is it sideways? Is it another dimension? How is it accessed? What does it do? I mean, the idea of eternal punishment—well that’s boring! You’d just get used to it in eternity. And who runs it? What is Satan doing? Does he have recreations—does he have hobbies? The more your literalize that stuff, the funnier it becomes.
People tell me the stuff I write is funny. I feel like I’m just trying to apply the reality principle to horror a little bit. In We Sold Our Souls, you’re selling a soul. Well, what’s a soul? What’s the value? Who sells it? How does that transaction work? But you have to watch that it doesn’t get too goofy.
So I’ve always really liked taking Satan really seriously, because then he gets silly. On the other end of it, when you start taking it metaphorically, yes, evil is terrible. No one wants to be evil. But depending on which Christian church you’re looking at, if Satan’s in opposition to it, is that really so bad? You know, the majority of Christian churches are perfectly lovely, but the Christian church of 11th century Romania? A little repressive and crazy. The German Christian church of the 17th century? Evangelical churches—churches that preach gay conversion therapy, churches that say don’t drink or smoke or have sex? You start to think, well, Satan kind of looks like a lot more fun.
And I think there’s been a point in everyone’s life where you feel like you’re the bad guy, like you are the supervillain in your life. Whether it’s in your marriage or a relationship with a friend or your work, you’re the bad guy. And I always feel like those are the moments where Satan’s sort of there to pull up another stool at the bar and say, “Hey, it’s not so bad. I’ve been the bad guy for millions of years. It’s okay!” It’s a comforting presence.
Music has also played a pretty pivotal role in your last few novels, particularly We Sold Our Souls. What are your own musical tastes and do they inspire you while you’re writing?
I’m pretty omnivorous with music. I wasn’t a metalhead at all until I wrote We Sold Our Souls, and now there are some bands I really love and some albums I can’t listen to because I listened to them too much.
Usually when I’m writing I don’t listen to music. When I’m doing the boring stuff like copyediting I will. We Sold Our Souls is an exception. I listened to music a ton during that, really burned out a couple of bands. For me though, the thing was, in high school you have such a one-to-one connection with music. There were songs in high school that got me through my day, that got me to school, you know? So it’s always been something that really carries a real emotional charge for me.
I think that’s true for a lot of people. But metal is one of those sub-genres that’s kind of incomprehensible to outsiders. You said you only really got into it while writing the novel—how did you approach metal from the perspective of someone who lives and breathes it every day?
Yeah, that was hard. And I really was careful to be very respectful, because I also think metal is really looked down on as a genre. Hip-hop is considered kind of dangerous and cool even if people hate it. Metal—people just think you’re an idiot if you listen to metal.
But it was really hard for me to get into it, and I was constantly looking for that song, that album that would be my gateway in. And stupidly enough, it was the first track off Black Sabbath’s first album. I was oh, okay, I kind of get it! You listen to that stuff now and it sounds more like pop, really, or even like blues-inflected pop. But from there I went to a little Led Zeppelin, backwards but going forwards, all the late 70s and 80s hair bands. I kind of skipped a lot of the thrash metal and speed metal—once you start getting into Cookie Monster voice I get a little lost. But I realised my real sweet spot was prog metal and power metal, so lots of Wolves in the Throne Room, lots of Woods of Ypres, a fair amount of Mastodon. Devin Townsend, for some reason, I listened to a ton of. And I listened to a lot of blues, because as someone said to me, if you just relax metal enough it becomes blues.
It was hard, but I’m good at forming quick attachments, so I was able to glom onto some of this stuff and really fall in love very fast. But there’s still so much I don’t know.
I don’t think anyone knows everything about metal. It’s such a sprawling genre.
Now, you touch on a number of real-life conspiracy theories throughout the novel, especially in the little radio segments. What was it like doing the rabbit-hole dive into researching those things, and what’s your perspective on that kind of thinking?
It was really depressing. When I was into conspiracy theories in high school in the 80s, they were wild. I mean, there were some white supremacists out there and some antisemitism in it—that was definitely there. The Christian Identity movement was getting big. But for the most part, a lot of the conspiracy theories were just wackadoo, and they were fun, and you had places like the Church of the SubGenius and the filmmaker Craig Baldwin and Negativland—all these people that were playing with these tropes and doing almost like performance art with them.
Checking back into that world now is just really depressing. A lot of people feel very disempowered and very cynical about the world, and conspiracy theories serve not only to feed that but as an outlet for that, and there’s just so much anger and despair. It really took a toll. And I feel like there’s a conspiracy theory—and you saw it at the turn of the previous century with the white slavery, and you saw it before that with antisemitism to a large extent in the 19th century, and you saw it with Satanism in the 80s with the Satanic Panic, and you see it now with this “Deep State” QAnon stuff—which is, we were fucked before we were born. You’re screwed. You’re not in the right club, you don’t have the right membership card, so don’t even try. You’re defeated. There is no freedom, it’s all an illusion, and we’re all just puppets for the one percent.
On the one hand, okay, that’s very despair inducing. But on the other hand, it kind of gives everyone a free pass. Like, why try? You don’t have to do anything. And those people in the one percent are really bad—they’re all paedophiles or cannibals or Satanists with no soul. So you can feel better than them, but don’t try to defeat them. There’s nothing you can do. And it’s really depressing, to be honest.
On a more positive note, your novels have been very female driven. I know you’ve mentioned in interviews in the past that you think of horror as a very female genre, right back to people like Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson. Has it been a conscious decision to have all these really fleshed-out female characters as the leads, and how you approach writing them in a way that feels authentic, coming from a male perspective?
Well to me, it’s not really on purpose. It wasn’t until after My Best Friend’s Exorcism when I was like, oh yeah, I guess my lead characters have been women. I just find women more interesting to write about.
We Sold Our Souls was supposed to be a dude, and I couldn’t get a handle on the book. And then it was election night 2016 when I was like, I’m going to write about someone who has been told they’re worthless and have no value. It kind of has to be a woman right now. The book just snapped into place after that, so something’s clearly wrong with me—I’m a self-loathing dude.
In terms of writing women realistically, I just feel like you just treat them like people. Like okay, someone’s got boobs, I don’t. I look at my wife—dealing with her breasts doesn’t take up a large percentage of her day; it comes pretty naturally.
She doesn’t stare into the mirror and describe herself for five minutes at the start of the novel?
Exactly! Oh the mirror scenes, I love those. “She was pretty good looking for thirty-five.” I love that, when people look in the mirror and say that about themselves.
So yeah, I don’t know what the trick is. To me, it’s like envisioning any character. I did a book that may or may not get published where there’s a character in a wheelchair. I did a lot of research for that. The book I’m writing right now, what’s really killing me is that it’s all about a group of parents. I don’t have kids. And for me, that experience is so alien, from a male or female perspective, and that’s one that I’m really having to struggle with.
So… They’re just people. I know that’s a flip answer, I just don’t know how to say it better. I’m always surprised that people aren’t able to write women well. It’s like, you can write dudes, why can’t you write women? They’re just dudes with boobs. I know that there are differences to the experience, but I feel like if you just walk through the world with your eyes open, you sort of see how that experience differs pretty easily.
The first novel of yours that I read was My Best Friend’s Exorcism—I fell in love with the cover and didn’t actually read the name on the front. I didn’t realise it was written by a man until long after I’d read it.
You know, someone just sent me a link—I showed up on a list of great books by female authors. My Best Friend’s Exorcism was on there. I was like cool, I’ll take it.
Yeah, I feel like that’s a great compliment. Now I know there were some murmurings about a Horrorstör TV adaptation that seem to have gone quiet recently. To your knowledge, has there been any forward motion on that project?
In LA, everything just moves super slow. It’s like reverse dog years; one year in LA is like ten minutes anywhere else. So it was still alive the last time I was apprised. We’ll see, man. I don’t know. At this point, I feel so distant from Horrorstör—it’s like my kids have gone off to college and write occasionally. So, I hope. It would be nice. I’d love the money!
And now that you’re writing screenplays as well, would you ever consider adapting one of your own novels into a film?
Definitely. When I first did Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, when I first did those deals for film rights, I was like meh, I don’t want to be involved in that, that’s a different thing. And now, seeing the process and having done it a few times, I definitely want to be involved with that. I feel like the more control you have over your own stuff, the more involved you are in that process, the better.
Sure, absolutely. Would there be a dream director for you?
Well, I really wanted them to go to Drew Barrymore for My Best Friend’s Exorcism, just because she grew up in that era. She’s a few years younger than I am, but she grew up in that era, and I didn’t think of this at the time but ET is obviously big in her life and big in the book. Also, I thought it was a good movie for someone who makes movies about women.
The other people I really wanted to do the screenplay for it, which didn’t wind up happening, were the women from Broad City. Because with Get Out, more and more comedians were like oh, we can write screenplays and do horror. And I so wanted them to do the script for My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which would be great.
I can picture that and it would be fantastic. My last question for you, and I know this is impossible to answer sometimes, but what is your all-time favourite horror novel?
Oh! Well it depends. I think there are two inarguably great horror novels of the 20th century, which are Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I mean, that’s the 20th century right there.
In terms of personal favourites… You know, it’s funny. I guess the writer I go back to over and over again, as boring as this sounds, is Shirley Jackson. Although I will say that I’m working with this press Valancourt to put out these books from Paperbacks from Hell [Hendrix’s non-fiction book about 70s and 80s horror novels], and we’re just reissuing Bari Wood’s The Tribe—god that’s a good book, and she doesn’t like it! I was interviewing her and she’s like, “oh that book is terrible,” and I’m like, this book’s really amazing! And some of Ken Greenhall’s stuff like Elizabeth is fantastic, Joan Samson’s The Auctioneer… There is so much. I love all these little mutant babies.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)