Monday, June 10, 2024

Now Available: The Soul of Wes Craven by Joe Maddrey

Joseph Maddrey, author of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, and many other superb works of genre scholarship is back with a new and exciting project: a meticulous, assiduously researched biography of the late, great horror icon (and so much more...), Wes Craven.

 The Soul of Wes Craven is available for purchase now, and Joe and I recently had the opportunity to talk about his amazing new book, and the incredible work that went into it.

JKM: Let’s begin with the obvious. How and when did you decide to write a biography of Wes Craven? Why did you choose Craven as your subject?


Joe: I started thinking about it in 2010, when I interviewed Wes. We had a great conversation and we talked about a book, but at the time I was busy writing a biography of Lance Henriksen. It took me a couple years to come back to the idea, and by then John Wooley had published his biography of Wes. Soon after that, Wes died and I felt like I’d missed my chance. 


Then in December 2019, I became interested in Wes’s early writings. He wrote a column for his high school newspaper (titled “Craven’s Ravin’s”), and he had a lot of poems and short stories published in the literary magazine at Wheaton College. While he was pursuing a Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins, he also wrote a novel, which has never been published. I tracked down those manuscripts, then started tracking down Wes’s peers from high school and college. None of them had ever been interviewed about Wes, so that became the foundation of a new biography. 

JKM:  I have always admired your diligence and completeness in terms of research. This book explores facets of Wes Craven’s life I knew nothing about, even having written my own book about Craven’s canon back in 1997. Talk to us a little about your process, and your interviewees.


Joe: I believe the best interviews are more than Q&A. It has to be a real dialogue. When I met Wes in 2010, we had a dialogue. He actually preempted my interview questions by interviewing me. “Where are you coming from? Why are you interested in talking to me? What do you want to write about my films?” He was genuinely curious, so I told him. It turned out we had some similar early life experiences, similar beliefs, and similar taste in literature. 

As a result, our conversation quickly became personal. That’s one of the reasons I had to write the book; it was important to me to pursue answers to the big questions at the center of Wes’s life and work, even though I didn’t have access to Wes anymore.


When I started reaching out to his college peers in early 2020, I wasn’t sure anyone would talk to me. Wes went to Wheaton, an evangelical school, and I didn’t think most Wheaton alums be eager to talk about the man who created Freddy Krueger. But everyone I talked to remembered Wes and remembered him fondly. The more I learned about him, the more questions I had, so I just kept moving forward through the chronology of his life, tracking down new manuscripts (a lot of unproduced screenplays) and new people, having great conversations, and finding the storyline as I went.


JKM:  There have been many books about the films of Craven, including my own, The Art of Horror.  How does The Soul of Wes Craven differ from these other books, would you say? Why is Craven’s story one that needs to be told?


Joe: For me, the big ones were yours, Brian J. Robb’s Screams & Nightmares, and John Wooley’s Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares—but there are also hundreds of smaller articles, essays, interviews, etc. I read as many as I could because I wanted to have a comprehensive overview of Wes’s evolution. Then it was a matter of filling in the gaps with new research. I think most of the information in the first three chapters of The Soul of Wes Craven will be completely new to even the most die-hard Wes fans. The same is true of the last three chapters, plus the chapter on Wes’s “lost years” working in adult cinema. And even if you think you know everything about A Nightmare on Elm Street, I promise you don’t.


But my goal was not just to generate new Wes Craven trivia. I wanted to present a more comprehensive and humanizing view of the man behind the work, and to treat the work with the kind of seriousness that an academic scholar would apply to great literature. To me, Wes’s work deserves that kind of attention. I have written a couple of books about T.S. Eliot (one of the subjects that Wes and I connected on), and Eliot believed that in order to fully appreciate an artist, you have to know the whole of their work. You don’t have to like it all, but if you make yourself aware of it all, you can see how the artist’s mind evolves, and how all the different individual works complement each other. If an artist’s work speaks to you, you can learn a lot about yourself and your world by studying theirs. That’s why we do this, right?


JKM: The book is riveting, frankly. My eyes were really opened by the chapter about Craven’s college years. Tell the audience a bit about this very special chapter. What did you find out, and why do you think it’s so surprising and interesting to Craven scholars and fans?


Joe: Through my interviews, I learned that Wes had been a part of (if not a leader of) a group of brilliant “literary rebels” at Wheaton. I’d always imagined him as an outsider at Wheaton, but it turns out there were quite a few outsiders at Wheaton in the early 1960s. They were all wrestling with the same issues Wes was wrestling with at that time in his life, which had to do with belief in God, or definitions of God. This is a brilliant, brilliant group of people, many of whom went on to become successful writers and artists in their own right. Wheaton challenged all of them in life-altering ways. 


One of Wes’s most formative experiences at Wheaton was when the president of the college “denounced” him publicly during a church service—because Wes, as editor of the school literary magazine, had published a couple of short stories that were deemed inappropriate by some board members. I think this admonishment really brought out Wes’s rebellious streak and played a big role in making him the “Wes Craven” that we know. Wes was always impish, but I think his experience with the literary magazine transformed him. Like his peers, he was forged in fire. The stories of that time and place really help to explain his complexity as a literary thinker, and also the strength of his character.


JKM:  Again, most folks familiar with Craven know that he had -- let’s call it a “flirtation” -- with the adult film industry. Your book covers that phase in remarkable detail. How do you think the details of this time in his career add to our understanding of Craven as an artist?


Joe: Yes, but most people get the details wrong. Wes did work in adult cinema, because that’s the work he could get as an aspiring filmmaker. That became his film school. He didn’t study to be a filmmaker as an undergraduate. He wanted to be a novelist, then he became a Humanities professor, then he decided to get into filmmaking when he was about 30 years old. He was starting late, he had no c.v., and he had a lot of catching up to do. You also have to remember that in the early 1970s, adult cinema was (briefly) a mainstream phenomenon. Deep Throat was the 5th highest-grossing film of 1972, behind The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, What’s Up Doc?, and Deliverance. Certain filmmakers were making artistically ambitious films in that arena. Especially in New York, where Wes was working. 


Wes never shied away from admitting he made adult films, but I imagine he would have mixed feelings about the amount of attention I focused on The Fireworks Woman, the one hardcore film he wrote and directed. I gave it extra attention for two reasons: (1) because not much has been written about it, and (2) because the film is, in some ways, very Wes. The major themes of his later work are present in this film, and I don’t think you can talk about Wes’s oeuvre without considering The Fireworks Woman. In much the way that Last House on the Left was conceived as a reflection on American attitudes toward violence, The Fireworks Woman was a serious, and very personal, attempt to explore American attitudes about sex. The former is celebrated today is because the horror genre has achieved some mainstream acceptance. The latter is a dirty secret because adult cinema does not have the cultural currency it did in the 1970s.


JKM:  Let’s talk about My Soul to Take (2010), a film that is not beloved by many horror fans, including me. Why was it so important to Wes Craven? Why was it so personal?


Joe: One of the reasons I titled my book The Soul of Wes Craven is because Wes said he felt like his generation of horror filmmakers drew more deeply on personal experience when they were telling stories. Younger filmmakers, he felt, draw too much on the old films. They might be more technically adept, but their stories are too often recycled or reheated. With My Soul to Take, Wes was trying to go back to his deepest well, drawing on his early life experiences for inspiration. Ironically, he ended up writing and directing a film that recycled elements of several of his earlier films, because he (or his financiers) felt like he had to meet certain audience expectations for “a Wes Craven film.” 


My Soul to Take is a hot mess and I don’t think Wes fully understood why. I believe it could have been a good miniseries or a great novel, with each episode / chapter focusing on a different character. There are too many characters, and the film doesn’t develop them adequately. But the central metaphor—about a collective soul—is intriguing, and I think Wes could have done something brilliant with it, if he’d had a bigger canvas and more time to develop the story. Unfortunately, the film was hastily written and rushed into production during a brief lull between Hollywood strikes. That commercial failure pretty much ended his filmmaking career.

JKM: The final chapters of the book are a bit more emotional, and affecting, or at least I read them that way. Were they harder to write? Was that your intent? A result of you getting closer and closer to your subject, as you continued to write?


Joe: Wes was disappointed that the success of the Scream films didn’t give him the freedom to make non-horror films. That’s what he wanted, and he tried really hard to break out of the horror genre in the new century. There’s an entire chapter about unrealized dream projects. As a result, it is tempting the interpret the last 15 years of Wes’s biography as an anticlimax. But that’s only part of the story, because Wes was more than his films. In the middle of the book, the story of his personal life gets overwhelmed by the stories behind the films, because that’s where he was putting so much of his energy and enthusiasm. In the last fifteen years, I think his personal life was more rewarding and fulfilling than the film work. During that time, he met and married his wife Iya, and they built a beautiful home and a new life together on Martha’s Vineyard. And he was writing prose again, instead of just screenplays. Had he lived a little longer, I think we might have a few more Wes Craven novels.


The book illustrates that artists have a meaningful life beyond their art. Art comes out of our life experience and informs our life experience, but art is not life. This is something I thought about a lot while working with my friend Bruce Joel Rubin on his new memoir, It’s Only a Movie. Initially, I thought that would be a book about intersections between Bruce’s spiritual life and his film work, but the book Bruce ended up writing is so much more—because his life is so much more. I wish Wes had written his own memoir. For years, he talked about it. In lieu of a true autobiography, there’s The Soul of Wes Craven, a “collective soul,” incorporating the voices of many of the people who knew and loved Wes.


JKM:  What lessons do you think Wes Craven’s life teaches us about horror, and, more broadly, about art, today, in 2024?


Joe: You mean, does a book about a dead horror filmmaker really matter in our crisis-driven everyday world? Yeah, I think it does. Making art and telling stories are things we do to understand the world, cope with the world, engage with the world, disengage from the world (when necessary), transcend the world and transform the world. Wes did those things in a sincere and meaningful way, so we can learn from him. Anyone who dismisses that opportunity because Wes was a horror filmmaker is missing out on a powerful life story.


JKM:  What’s next for you? Can we look forward to another horror icon biography? 


Joe: Honestly, I don’t know. I have a few new book ideas—and even a few works in progress—but right now I’m waiting to see how this one is received. Believe it or not, I’ve been writing nonfiction books about filmmakers for twenty years. My first book was published in 2004, and it ended with a chapter on Wes Craven. I feel like I’ve come full circle, so now I have to figure out what’s next. 


JKM: Finally, where can readers find the book?


Joe: Dustin McNeil of Harker Press, who has been a wonderful collaborator on this project, has created a website for the book.


For now, the easiest way to get The Soul of Wes Craven is on Amazon, but it will eventually be available via Barnes & Nobles, Walmart, Target, and the usual online retailers. Thanks for your interest!


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