“What needs to happen is a unification of the genre – filmmakers, authors, musicians, fans”
“What needs to happen is a unification of the genre – filmmakers, authors, musicians, fans”
Interview with New Zealand short story writer and novelist Denver Grenell
By Michael Botur
Denver Grenell is a writer of horror & dark fiction who lives with his family in the small rural town New Zealand town of Featherston. A life-long horror hound who got back into writing after a long break, Grenell’s stories have been featured in various anthologies from Crystal Lake Publishing, Black Hare Press, Bloodrites Horror, Hawke Haus Books as well as on Hawk & Cleaver’s The Other Stories podcast. His debut collection of short stories ‘The Burning Boy & Other stories’ is out now through Beware The Moon Publishing. Most recently, Grenell became a finalist for BEST NOVEL at the Australian Shadows Awards 2022 for the survival horror novel ‘Red Ruin,’ co-written with Christchurch writer Ian J Middleton.
You’ve published a strong short story collection and an award-nominated novel. What’s distinctive about you and your work?
Jeez, start with hard questions why don’t ya? I guess what is distinctive about my work (and anyone’s work I suppose) is that it comes from me. Sure there are a great many influences, but they have hopefully been filtered through my life experiences and tastes and come out the other end as something (while not necessarily original) definitively me. Another thing is that I restarted my writing journey in my 40’s after a good 20 + year break (to play music / travel / start a family etc) and while I still think my writing has a fair way to go, all that accumulated experience has helped immensely. I always struggled with the age-old maxim of ‘write what you know’ cos I always maintained that I didn’t know shit. And while I would say to you now that I still don’t know shit, that would be somewhat disingenuous because you don’t get to your 40s without picking up the odd tidbit along the way.
Why should Gingernuts of Horror readers turn their heads your way?
If they turn their heads in my direction can I insist it has to be a 360 degree Reagan style head turn? Given that I’m at the bottom of the world, more like a 180 degree turn. I’m interested in telling universal stories set in Aotearoa New Zealand and featuring the people and landscapes found here. If there is one thing I’ve picked up along my travels, its an appreciation for all walks of life, especially in our island nation. And then I like to take those people – regular people, rural types etc – and put them through some kind of hell and see what shakes out.
How would you describe your brand?
NZ-flavoured horror with a cinematic scope. I tend to visualise my stories as films so that affects the structure and pacing of my stories. I’m not big on extraneous description, so my stories tend to err on the shorter side of things, which probably explains why I’ve yet to release a full novel on my own as of yet. I’ve had a few people say that my short stories have left them wanting more and I like that. I like the idea of the story existing on the outside of what I have presented. To me it makes the story and the world feel bigger. Also, there’s nothing worse than a ‘short’ story that outstays its welcome or doesn’t have enough to say to justify the word count (the same goes double for novels).
Lots of Gingernuts of Horror readers probably don’t know anything about Kiwi horror. Paint us a picture of where Kiwi horror comes from, where it’s going, and whether things are good for NZ horror writers right now, or otherwise.
Kiwi horror is intrinsically tied to the landscape of this small country. There is a rugged sensibility to the land and that feeds into the people. The history of the land and the original inhabitants of it and how that was dealt with looms large over all New Zealand stories, horror or otherwise. Like all colonised countries, there is an injustice that has yet to be fully reconciled and that can feed into our stories at a subconscious level, adding an element of real darkness and unease. But having said that, New Zealand also has a strong history of horror comedy, moreso in film, such as Peter Jackson’s first three films and later films like Black Sheep and Deathgasm that proudly fly the splatter flag high.
Tell us the quick premise/ elevator pitch of a story you were really excited to get on the page. What is a story you would love GOH readers to check out?
The Burning Boy short story was one that arrived fully formed in my head, as if I had just watched the film version of it. It deals with a group of teens involved in a tragic accident and the supernatural vengeance that results from it. It’s also a story I could see being a novella but I like that I managed to get a lot of incidents and time into 5,500 words.
You have to work a day job. What are your thoughts about that clashing with your horror writing – if it does clash?
Prior to my current role I worked at Radio New Zealand (RNZ) as an audio engineer and luckily the job had some downtime which I used to my advantage. I managed to get my first two books written in those breaks, but my latest job as Marketing Coordinator for Featherston Booktown has meant I haven’t written a single word of fiction in the last six weeks! As the festival has just been, I’m really looking forward to diving back into my various unfinished projects.
You are, or were, a “horrorspondent” for the government-funded radio station RNZ (Radio New Zealand.) Tell us about the role. Has it helped your writing career?
I was the horrorspondent and while it hasn’t helped sell books at all, it has helped me in numerous ways. Firstly it’s helped me become comfortable talking in public about horror – I was very green on my first appearances and while I’ve still got a way to go, my confidence has improved immeasurably. Also, it has given me the impetus to make a podcast, an idea I’d been toying with for a few years, so I hope to get that off the ground this year.
Did the world ever ‘allow’ you to look at writing in other genre instead of horror? Do you have strengths in other types of writing?
20 + years ago I was trying to write a sort of Chuck Palahniuk meets Charlie Kaufman mashup and it was god-awful. It was a bunch of random ideas with nothing to say. It was so bad that I quit writing for all those years. So, while I can’t say I have strength in other genres, I can write film reviews and music reviews fairly easily and have done for a few websites and on my blog as well.
‘The Burning Boy’ has lots of strong, fresh, original ideas in it. Tell us about the collection. Did it achieve your vision? Where did the collection come from? How much work was required? And which of the stories in it are you most proud of?
Thanks! All of the stories were written over a two years period, mostly as submissions for anthologies – a good half of them were previously published and the others were reworked from rejected stories. So it really does feel like the first album where all of your best songs up to that point in time are included. In hindsight, I would’ve liked a couple more good gnarly horror stories in there, but I’m pretty happy with the book, warts and all. I’m probably most proud of The Burning Boy as – through that being included in an anthology – I got to meet a lot of cool new horror writers in the same stage of their writing journey as me. And it kind of summed up what I wanted to try and do with my writing which I guess is character-driven high concept horror.
One of your stories is part of an Audible anthology called Slice of Paradise A Beach Vacation Horror Anthology. In fact, you’re part of several horror anthologies. Plenty of horror authors contribute to anthologies at the start, middle, and climax of their careers. What are your thoughts about the value of anthologies? Do you feel anthologies clash with publishing your own collections?
As I said above, I spent a couple of years writing and submitting stories and the experience was invaluable for so many reasons – getting rejected and getting used to that sting of disappointment, but also learning from that and spending more time on making the story the best it could be before submitting. It was also invaluable for actually finishing work – working to a deadline is great for finishing stories. And then also entering the online writing community and finding your tribe amongst the countless online writers havens. Making friends / reading each other’s work / supporting each other etc. I have definitely eased up on the submissions now as I want to focus on longer works as well as other non-writing pursuits such as events and music.
Would you rather be writing horror in 1983 or 2023? What are your thoughts about our milieu, the current conditions of 2023, and the contrast between digital publishing and paper publishing.
I would rather be writing now – live into now man! As much as I have a fondness for those golden years of horror, right now is an incredibly exciting time to be contributing to this amazing genre. There are so many voices that previously haven’t had the exposure and the rise of the indie presses and self-publishing has definitely helped this. The diversity of voices is essential for horror to keep growing and evolving. With regards to digital / self-publishing, I think it’s great, especially for an old codger like me who hasn’t got the time or patience to go the traditional route. And given that I am a fairly slow writer (one book a year type) I need to be able to get things out when I’m ready. There is of course a downside to self-publishing, in that there are also a lot of terrible books being released, but I’m all for anyone having a shot at it.
Red Ruin is your longest work. Where did Red Ruin come from and what did you hope for it to achieve?
The idea came from Ian J Middleton, my co-writer. He’s been writing books for longer than me and was very supportive as I started my journey back into it. He pitched the idea of a post-apocalyptic series of books and to be honest I wasn’t interested. I felt like the market was saturated in that stuff and I didn’t know what we could necessarily add to it. But the more I thought about it, I realised that it could very much work if it was set in New Zealand and in particular the South Island and Christchurch, where I’m from. So then Ian and I talked about what the story would look like and the characters we wanted to inhabit the story and before long I was in. It took a good couple of years to get the book right though and that was complicated by our own books and other work, but we got there in the end and I’m really proud of the book.
You set Red Ruin in the South Island of New Zealand. It’s very filmic country. Did you have ambitions of getting Red Ruin on screen?
Yes of course! Like I said, I imagine my stories as films and am very conscious of structure. I’m always trying to build to something and take the reader on a journey, so I would love to have some of my stories translated to the big screen at some stage. Red Ruin though is fairly big story with a lot of scope and incident, so it’s most probably prohibitively expensive, and given the funding bodies’ general (ongoing) antithesis to the horror genre, unlikely to happen. But I have a number of ideas and half finished screenplays that I would love to see come to fruition one day. Watch this space!
Who is Ian J Middleton and tell us about working with a co-writer. (Kind of answered above)
Ian is originally from Wales and he lives in Christchurch which is my hometown. We met through his partner, who I knew previously and she put us together and we’ve been fast friends ever since. Ian has self-published a number of books such as the Vantage Point series and his knowledge of self-publishing made my journey so much easier.
Working with a co-writer was a great learning curve. It was hard but also very rewarding. It’s really good to have someone to bounce ideas off of. It’s a constant negotiation but I think we got pretty good and telling it like it is and not taking things personally. Like I said it was a pretty laborious process but that was part of the learning curve and I have no doubt it will be quicker the next time we do it.
Performing to the public, in person, digital recordings etc – how has that been for you? Are you a good performer? Is there pressure to become a great orator?
Playing music all my life in different guises means I am comfortable on stage, but as a bass player or a drummer, not the lead singer! But I’m finally at that point in my life where I will consciously do those things that scare me – like talking on the radio or doing live readings. I’m not there yet! I don’t know if there is pressure from anyone other than myself to just be relaxed and conscious of what I’m saying / reading and the audience.
I have a theory we might be entering a period in which NZ horror authors “let their freak flag fly” now that we have a dedicated horror streaming channel (Shudder) and there are so many options on YouTube and podcasts to turn horror into performance. We also – finally – have a few dedicated horror groups on Facebook. What are your thoughts and theories about the ‘fertility’ of the ‘garden’ for NZ horror writers at the mo?
I think it’s an excellent time for the genre as a whole and NZ has a rich history and current culture of horror that I find exciting. What needs to happen though is for a unification of the genre and people here – filmmakers / authors / musicians / fans etc all supporting one another and sharing the love amongst each other and the world. Strength in numbers, especially if those numbers are small.
Do you create any other horror media, such as visual art, music, films etc?
I’ve been playing music for 30 plus years now and after a break, am getting back into it. I composed the music for this years’ edition of Campfire Tales, a horror story event I created as part of Featherston Booktown. I would like to expand on that music into an EP or album of instrumental music. I also DJ horror movie soundtracks / scores at various film events at the Roxy Cinema in Wellington and at the Terror-Fi Film Festival.
I also co-run the Featherston Vinyl Club which is a collective of vinyl loving people who get together in a local pub once a month to drink beer and spin tunes. We put on a Halloween ball last year for kids during the day and adults at night and both were really successful.
What are some NZ Kiwi horror gems you wish the world knew about? Whether literature, film, TV or other.
I would recommend Cassie Hart’s book Butcherbird which is a fantastic novel about dark family secrets and supernatural entities. It has a rural setting which I love and a really strong sense of character and place. It won the Best Novel Award at the 2022 Sir Julius Vogel Awards and really should be made into a film.
I feel like most of the classic Kiwi horror films are well known around the world at this point, but if you haven’t seen them, check out Peter Jackson’s early films, as well as more recent films like Black Sheep, Deathgasm, Housebound and of course What We Do In The Shadows.
Denver Grenell’s website and social: https://www.bewarethemoon.co.nz/
Follow award-winning horror author Michael Botur’s crowdfunding campaign to launch his forthcoming collection.
2022 Australian Shadows Awards finalist for BEST NOVEL
Kia Kaha. Stay Strong. Two simple words that together are worth more than the sum of their parts. Forever entwined with the New Zealand city of Christchurch, they meant little to Carla Gallo, until now.
As one chapter of her life closes, Carla reluctantly returns to Christchurch to find a city she doesn’t remember, filled with more strangers than friends. Estranged from her parents, and a brother who is more drinking buddy than sibling, she once again has to make it on her own.
When a sudden and violent outbreak sweeps through the country, she finds herself running for her life, and fighting to survive against a sleepless, merciless threat that turns its victims into savage killers. Taking refuge with a family living on the outskirts of the city, her priorities become tested as they’re forced to trust each other in this cruel new world.
A terrifying, emotional, and at times brutal journey that sends Carla across the vast Canterbury Plains and deep into the New Zealand backcountry, where she must come to understand who she really is, if she is to see the last thing she holds dear ever again.Stay Strong. Stay Alive.