Fiction with a Bite: An Interview with Ellen Datlow

Not only is Ellen Datlow one of the nicest people you’re likely to meet, but she’s also one of the most talented editors in horror and dark fiction publishing. With over twenty-five years in the business, she has seen the changing tides of the genre as well as more stories than most people will read in a lifetime. Simply put, she’s a literary powerhouse.

You want great horror literature; you go to Ellen Datlow. That’s what Underwords did, and she graciously agreed to answer a few of our questions. We hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did. Special thanks to Ellen for giving us a bit of her time to share with you.


In the intro for The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 3, you identify hundreds of books, anthologies, magazines, e-zines, collections, and short stories. When you read that much fiction within a year in addition to working on your own projects, how do you keep the stories from blending together over time? Were there any stories that, even after you put them down, really stood out in your memory, refusing to be forgotten?

No matter how many stories I read, there will be stories that jump out at me with an ineffable something that make them special. It could be a voice, a character, a setting, plot element, language but usually it’s a combination of all these elements that make up the most memorable stories. There are stories I read as a young adult that I’ve reprinted in various magazines/anthologies because they made such an impression on me when I was young. Over the thirty plus years I’ve been editing short fiction, there’s a storehouse in my brain of those and the more recent stories that have done the same for me. So reading for the Best of the Year can be dull if I read a rash of uninteresting stories, but as soon as I hit one that makes a strong impression on me I’m delighted and grateful to be doing what I do.

With regard to the Best Horror #3 specifically, the stories that I chose to be included are those that did stand out and stuck in my memory. That’s a good part why they were chosen.

Other than the obvious answer that “you could include more stories,” how did the increased word count from 125,000 to 140,000 words affect your vision and the development of this year’s Best Horror of the Year?

I’ve been begging for more wordage since I started editing best of the year anthologies. I would prefer even more, but with the extra 15,000 words I can include a novella (which I didn’t last year) or longer novelettes (which I did). “City of the Dog” by John Langan and “-30-“ by Laird Barron. And this year it’s allowing me to take a 16,000 word novella by Peter Straub.

What new trend(s) in dark fiction/horror do you see gaining steam? Are there any stories in this Best Horror that reflect this trend?

Zombies are hardly new but they still have been steaming along—at least through 2010 and two of the stories in Best Horror #3 are zombie stories: Karina Sumner-Smith’s “When the Zombies Win” and Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Days of Flaming Motorcycles” both of which are lovely melancholy (yet horrific) takes on zombies.

I’m afraid I can never identify trends in advance. I’m as surprised as anyone else when some weird dark idea takes hold and rages through the culture. 🙂

Are there any trends that you would like to see developed or reduced in new horror or dark fiction?

I think there’s a wonderful variety of horror/dark fiction stories being written today.

However, I’d like to see less romantic vampires and more scary ones—something I’ve personally taken a crack at changing—with Teeth, a just published young adult vampire anthology co-edited with Terri Windling and my forthcoming solo vampirism anthology Blood and Other Cravings, coming out from TOR in September.

And I’d like to see the zombie tucked away for a few years.

You have read and edited more anthologies than most people. What do you think is the biggest mistake that new editors make when building anthologies? If you could give them one piece of advice, what would it be?

If it’s a theme anthology make sure that you solicit the best writers you can, and writers with different voices.

I have to add this second: Don’t be afraid to reject stories. Your responsibility to your publisher and your readers is to put together the best batch of stories you can. If a story doesn’t pass muster don’t buy it. (or work with the writer until it does)

Among the many creatures that have found their way into the pages of horror literature, zombie seem to posses a special ability to exist long past their expiration date. Why do you think zombie fiction, both good and bad, continues to proliferate at such a strong rate?

I don’t really know, although I’ve been asked this several times. For vampires it’s easy—
there are so many permutations and variations possible. But for the zombie? No idea.

What do you love most about your work as an editor with either reprint or original anthologies?

I love discovering talented new writers as I work on my Best of the Year and with original anthologies, I love the fact that without me many of the stories would not exist (if I solicit/commission them). I also enjoy working with writers on their submission, and prodding them to create their best work.

You recently won the Horror Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor bestowed by the organization. How do you top that? What do you have in store for the future?

I can’t top it. All I can do is to continue to help create exciting, commercially viable anthologies.

In your new anthology Supernatural Noir “the gritty realism of noir embraces the nightmare imaginings of supernatural horror.” You have combined two very strong and distinct genres in this anthology. What was the inspiration for this pairing? Did your vision for the anthology evolve or remain true to its original design as your brought the stories together?

The idea was actually handed to me on a plate by my in-house editor at Dark Horse (they published Lovecraft Unbound). But to me it was the perfect fit because it combines two of my loves. My vision most definitely remained true to my original intent so it’s (for now) one of my favorite anthologies.

What has been the most fun for you creatively when putting either The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 3 or Supernatural Noir?

They’re both fun in different ways. It’s always both a painful and joyous experience to edit the best of the year. A pain because of all the bad or more often mediocre stories I have to wade through to get to the gems. Joyous to find fresh and new voices I haven’t read before. Fun to discover gems from outlying venues that other horror readers aren’t familiar with.

I don’t know if I’d call Supernatural Noir exactly “fun” to put together but I’m always extremely pleased to receive new stories that I love—and more in SN than in other anthologies I’ve edited recently. I’ve got great stories by writers with whom I’ve never previously worked: Paul G. Tremblay, Tom Piccirilli, and Nate Southard.


More information about Ellen and her work can be found or by visiting her website and her blog.  You can also follow her via Facebook and Twitter.


Ellen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for over twenty-five years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and has edited more than fifty anthologies, including The Best Horror of the Year, Inferno, Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, Lovecraft Unbound, Supernatural Noir, Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, The Beastly Bride (with Terri Windling), Teeth: Vampire Tales, and Haunted Legends (with Nick Mamatas).

Forthcoming are Blood and Other Cravings, and the young adult dystopian anthology After (the last with Windling).

She’s has won multiple Locus Awards, Hugo Awards, Stoker Awards, International Horror Guild Awards, World Fantasy Awards, and The Shirley Jackson Award for her editing. She was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre.” She has also been honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career.

She co-curates the long-running Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in New York City’s east village.

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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