Exclusive Interview: “Killer Creatures Down Under” Editor Deborah Sheldon
Oftentimes, when there’s a collection of short horror stories about animals killing people, said animals are of the fictional variety. But in assembling the anthology Killer Creatures Down Under: Horror Stories With Bite (paperback, Kindle), editor Deborah Sheldon decided that all of these tales had to feature real-life animals that live in Australia, including (but not limited to) the Quoll, the Goanna, the Blue Ringed Octopus, and the Rainbow Lorikeet. All of whom are pictured below in what I assume are photos found on the corpses of brave nature photographers. In the following email interview, Sheldon discusses what inspired this anthology, including why she went for real-life monsters instead of fictional ones.
It’s obvious from the title what the stories in Killer Creatures Down Under: Horror Stories With Bite are all about. They’re all short stories in which someone gets bit when they try to take food away from Hugh Jackman when he’s bulking up to play Wolverine, right? It’s not? Weird. So, what is it about?
It’s exactly what it says on the tin: an anthology of dark, scary or unsettling stories that feature Australian animals from creepy-crawlies to crocodiles. While my submission callout requested that each story would need to tick the “body horror” box, I left the subgenre wide open. I wanted writers to feel free to explore the theme of dangerous Australian animals in whichever subgenres that floated their boats, such as sci-fi, gothic, historical, futuristic, psychological — you name it, I was into it.
(And about Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, I’ve often wondered why there’s a superhero named after a type of weasel. It’s an odd choice. Maybe the original writer didn’t know what a wolverine was, but thought it sounded scary? Dunno.)
Even weirder, Wolverine’s frenemy Deadpool has a sidekick named Weasel. But anyway, where did you get the idea for Killer Creatures Down Under, and what made you think it could work as the theme for an anthology?
I’d already edited two anthologies. The first was Midnight Echo 14, which I guest-edited for the Australasian Horror Writers Association in 2019. The second was the anthology I conceived and edited, Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth, And Babies. Each experience was a near-vertical learning curve. But I was hooked. Editing an anthology is a blast. It requires a satisfying combination of creativity, organizational skills, and people-wrangling that feels so absorbing, I just had to do it again. In November 2021, I tasked myself to come up with a good premise for another anthology.
Believe it or not, I was in the shower washing my hair when the inspiration for Killer Creatures Down Under came to me. (Quite a few of my writing-related epiphanies have happened whilst hair-washing. If I have a creative problem that I can’t solve, I take a shower.) Whenever I’m trying to come up with an idea, I find it’s helpful to first put some parameters in place. In this instance, I decided the anthology would be written solely by Australian citizens, residents, and ex-pats. Then I thought: what would be unique to all Australian horror writers that might resonate with readers from around the world? Animals! It felt like a Eureka moment. The full title came to me immediately. I remember repeating the title aloud, over and over, until I could get out of the shower and write it down.
I’m hopeful that readers of horror will be intrigued and excited by the anthology’s concept. Anyone who meanders around the Internet for a while is bound to come across articles or blog posts about how Australia is jam-packed with deadly animals. It seems to be one of the first things people think of when they think about Australia.
Well, that and the John Oliver Koala Chlamydia Ward at the Australia Zoo. So why did you decide that all the writers had to be Australian citizens, residents, or ex-pats?
All my life, I’ve admired the U.S.A. for their dedication in documenting the minutiae of their own culture and subcultures in every creative format, including short stories, novels, films and TV shows. Australia has long had a problem with “cultural cringe,” meaning we tend to judge our own creative efforts as inferior to or less important than works coming out of Britain and the U.S.A. I’m trying to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.
Our culture deserves to be documented, too. As a writer, I feel it’s my duty to write uniquely Australian stories using my own lens. And as an editor, I want to shine the spotlight on Australian authors and hopefully bring their work to a wider audience.
In a similar vein, why did you want all the animals that bite in Killer Creatures Down Under to be real as opposed to stories about people getting bit by Australian vampires or such Aussie cryptids as the Bunyip, Yara Ma Yha Who, or a drop bear?
I chose the theme of strictly real Australian animals because I felt that including mythological or made-up monsters would dilute the anthology’s dramatic effect.
Yes, Australian cryptids are fascinating — I featured our version of Bigfoot in my novella, Man-Beast — however, I wanted the appeal of this anthology to be rooted in its authenticity. People worldwide are scared of our country’s snakes, spiders, sharks, and crocs. I decided to give them an anthology of what scares them most. And perhaps, scare them with a few Australian creatures they haven’t even heard of before.
You mentioned earlier that you, “…left the subgenre wide open.” So what subgenres of horror are included in Killer Creatures Down Under?
Let me see… (I’m looking through the table on contents as we speak.) At a glance, we’ve got paranormal, crime, action, historical, slasher, phantasmagorical, supernatural, eco, psychological, monster, sci-fi, futuristic, gothic, some others that are harder to classify. And a few stories use black humor, which adds to the hair-raising effect of their narratives.
As an editor, I crave variety. This is because, as a reader, I dislike anthologies that insist all stories fit a particular shape, style, and mood. Sameness bores me very quickly. And I appreciate a themed anthology because it allows me to experience a range of markedly different creative interpretations.
So, how scary do these stories get, and why was that the right amount of scariness?
“Scary” is a subjective concept. What scares the pants off me might leave you cold, and vice versa. That’s another reason why variety in an anthology is so important. Horror always meets the reader halfway: what are the reader’s particular fears, bad memories, phobias? Different readers will have different favorites based on their own life experiences. But the stories I chose share a “baseline” of scariness that all readers will find unsettling.
As an editor, every story under consideration must firstly be technically proficient, which means it has a firm grasp of story structure, character, dialogue and pacing, among other devices. Once the criterion of technical proficiency is met, if a story makes me read faster and faster, and forget to wield my mental “red pen” to correct mistakes in spelling or grammar, I know I’ve found a story I want. And all of the stories in Killer Creatures Down Under had that effect on me.
Aside from having to fit the theme, what other parameters did the stories have to fit? Did they have to be new to this collection, did they have to be above or below a certain word count…?
In my submission guidelines, I was firm that a story had to be between 1500 and 5000 words. No flash fiction, no novelettes. Reprints were okay as long as the stories weren’t available to read for free online. (I included one of my own reprints, “Species Endangered,” from my award-winning collection Perfect Little Stitches And Other Stories, as that story partly inspired my editorial direction for Killer Creatures Down Under.)
I stipulated that I wasn’t open to gratuitous gore. While that sounds antithetical to what is essentially a “body horror” anthology, I believe that gore has to have a sound plot- or character-based reason to exist in a story. As a reader (and editor), I’m not interested in “splatter porn” for its own sake.
Blue Ringed Octopus
As you mentioned, you previously conceived of and edited the anthology Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth, And Babies. Is there anything you learned editing Spawn that made Killer Creatures Down Under better or easier to edit?
Two things. Firstly, getting better organized and streamlining processes. Editing an anthology means working with upwards of 20 people for months on end, including contributors, publishers, proof-readers, and cover designers. The number of emails alone is quite staggering. Spawn taught me to note-take meticulously.
And secondly, confidence. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I would remind myself that I’d done it all before with not only the award-winning Midnight Echo 14 but with Spawn, which was nominated for numerous awards and won two of them. Henry Ford’s famous quote is spot on: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” Believing in yourself allows you be decisive. And being able to make effective decisions enables better management of a project.
Personally, I love reading anthologies because it’s a great way to learn about new writers. In editing Killer Creatures Down Under, did you discover any new writers and then go out and buy one of their books?
Generally, my reading of fiction is geared towards improving my craft as a writer. This means I typically read acclaimed works from the late-eighteenth century to the early twenty-first century, although there are exceptions. Also, I read current horror magazines and anthologies (especially Australian ones) to keep abreast of work by fellow writers. There are plenty of writers I admire, but I won’t name names because I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out.
Hollywood loves turning horror stories into movies. And they seem to love Australia as well. Do you think any of the stories in Killer Creatures Down Under could work well as a movie?
Not so much a movie, no, but I could see Killer Creatures Down Under being translated into an anthology TV series along the lines of Black Mirror. That would be very cool.
So, is there anything else people need to know about Killer Creatures Down Under?
Let me brag about the cover first. My husband, Allen, came up with the concept of a battered road sign, and the talented Greg Chapman brought the idea to life with my added suggestion of a beautiful coastal road. The stories in Killer Creatures Down Under are set in the sea, the beach, the bush, and urban areas, so the cover encapsulates these various places really well.
And secondly, I’d like to give a shootout to Gerry Huntman, managing director of IFWG Publishing International, who took one look at my pitch for Killer Creatures Down Under and accepted it with a contract on the spot. He takes pride in publishing Australian authors and Australian stories, so he’s lighting candles, too; a lot of them, actually.
Finally, if someone enjoys Killer Creatures Down Under, what horror anthology that someone else edited would you suggest they check out?
One of the best horror anthologies I’ve ever read was Dead Of Night: The Best Of Midnight Echo edited by Shane Jiraiya Cummings. My Goodreads review says in part: “I’m a lifelong aficionado of the short story form, and Dead Of Night is impressive by any standards. Australia and New Zealand have tremendously talented horror writers, and this anthology is all the proof you’ll ever need. A word of warning: body horror features strongly, so don’t forget your cast-iron stomach.”
Moving away from Australia…Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories edited by Doug Murano was amazing. From my Goodreads review: “A gorgeous collection of suspenseful, heartfelt and (occasionally) gut-wrenching stories. A couple of entries brought me to tears. Added bonuses are the wonderful artwork that accompanies each story, and the evocative cover. Recommended for lovers of not just horror, but well-written literature.”
One thought on “Exclusive Interview: “Killer Creatures Down Under” Editor Deborah Sheldon”
As someone who contributed to this book, I can confirm that Deborah maintained excellent communication with all the writers, and provided lots of advice and assistance during the entire process. The book wouldn’t be as half as good if Deborah wasn’t involved. It was a lot of fun, and a real privilege to be a part of the process.