By ROCCO THOMPSON
The best slasher in recent memory has sprung directly from the mind of Adam Cesare, but you won’t find it lurking on your favorite streaming service or flickering across a drive-in screen. CLOWN IN A CORNFIELD, the author/YouTuber‘s debut in Young Adult fiction is a beguiling (and gory) teenage nightmare filled with surprising character turns, inventive violence, and well-measured social commentary slathered in the high-fructose goodness of everyone’s favorite ’80s subgenre.
The novel tells the story of Quinn Maybrook, who moves with her father to the one-horse burg of Kettle Springs to find a new life and rural repose. But Kettle Springs isn’t nearly as pleasant as it initially appears. With the local corn syrup factory shuttered and a generation of teens growing increasingly disenchanted with their town and parent’s traditional ways, Quinn’s new home is about to reach a breaking point, which comes in the form of a homicidal clown in a pork-pie hat who starts picking off the local youth…
Though something of a departure for Cesare (whose earlier efforts, such as 2013’s Video Night and 2016’s The Con Season: A Novel of Survival Horror were more firmly in the “adults only” category) CLOWN IN A CORNFIELD may prove to be his most successful and popular work to date, with critical accolades, a front-of-cover endorsement by none other than Clive Barker, and a movie in the works. Rue Morgue got to chat with Cesare about his love for the slasher genre, what it’s like writing for a different demographic, and whether he had anything to do with those real-life clown sightings in 2016.
CLOWN IN A CORNFIELD is your big jump to YA fiction. Was this a deliberate decision? How did it stretch you in terms of writing for a different type of audience?
Very deliberate! There’s a definite “YA horror movement” happening right now. It may not be huge, but it’s there and I’m betting it’ll keep growing. These books will drop from the bigger presses, sometimes just a few a season, but I read them and as a fan/practitioner of “adult horror” they get me very excited for the future of the genre as a whole. These authors are, a lot of the time, taking older tropes and approaching them with a certain youthful energy and irreverence and the results are really boundary-pushing in a lot of cases.
My personal approach was slightly different, not as irreverent since CLOWN IN A CORNFIELD is a slasher and I do revere our 50+ years of slasher history. But I also think that slashers are the perfect vehicle to talk about the fears and anxieties of when they were written. And as far as changing my style or sensibility up for a new audience: I really kind of didn’t? I’m sure there were certain subconscious changes I made, but it didn’t change the way I approached my characters. Even the most obnoxious or wrong-headed characters, I try to approach them with a certain humanity. So, there was no need to change that approach.
The rash of 2016 clown sightings (that have, unsettlingly enough, cropped up again) seem like an obvious influence on the novel, but what other events, ideas, or themes seeded it?
Yes. And them cropping up again isn’t a marketing stunt on my part. I swear. But those different viral videos were a big inspiration for the book’s slasher, Frendo the Clown. Who—before anyone’s imagining greasepaint, etc.—is a killer wearing a plastic clown mask, not a *clown* clown. Wow, 2016. It’s weird to think that 4 years later stalker clowns with knives seem quaint. I think good horror, even when it’s the populist kind—slashers, monster stories, etc.—I think it’s like taking a core sample of the culture that produced its anxieties. So since this novel is intended for a teen audience, I did a lot of asking: “what are young people today anxious about?” and, readers can find whatever specific answers I came up with themselves but, in short: they’ve got a lot to be worried about.
You’re a city boy, hailing from New York and residing in Philadelphia, so where did you draw inspiration from for Kettle Springs? The rural-urban divide is pretty precisely rendered in the novel.
Kettle Springs is a fictional town, but I was very careful to lay it in specifically with the rest of the real surrounding areas in Missouri. And you got me, I’m an east coaster, I have family in the Midwest and I’ve done plenty of traveling out there, and did my research like I should, but I can’t pretend that I’ve got my exact finger on the pulse of the Midwest. Which is why, more than just our POV entry point for the reader, our protagonist, Quinn, and her father, are kind of my way in, as well. So that it doesn’t feel like I’m this city slicker coming in and trying to put on a voice.
Slashers aren’t known to be a horror subgenre with a lot of depth, but CLOWN IN A CORNFIELD challenges that. Was it always your intention to use the archetypal setup to explore our current climate and generational tension, or did that evolve organically?
I agree that it’s a majority opinion, among both squares and some fellow horror fans, but I take umbrage with “slashers lack depth” as a premise. There’s plenty of slashers with depth. Sure, not every tax shelter quickie or 5th sequel warrants intellectualization, but some of horror’s most thematically complex films are slashers or slasher-adjacent.
I do agree with your second statement, that the archetypes and the structure are codified. Honestly that’s part of what attracts me to the subgenre. That it invites you to color inside the lines, to an extent, but its each entry’s tiny deviations from the established formats that make all the difference. And I’ve been talking movies, because to me slasher is an endemically cinematic subgenre, but there’s been plenty of great examples of slasher literature (The Summer Has Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved by Joey Comeau, The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones).
You have a very evocative and effective way of describing pain and violence. Where do you think that comes from?
I haven’t been asked that before I guess, because I’m at a loss. I don’t know. I don’t like real-life violence, am not a violent person, so maybe all the violence in the book is my neurotic “what would be the worst thing that could happen to my body?” fears. Then I try and put some poetry into it, because I’m a horror fan and—in the right context—on-screen violence can sneak a smile out of me. If only in a “grew up reading magazines about how they did that effect” kind of way, an appreciation for the artistry of a good bone break or a sudden knife through the back of the head, coming out the mouth (thanks, Uncle Fulci). But I think, in prose, if you’re writing violence to be “fun” it’s never going to read right. My book isn’t here to lecture anyone. And there’s humor and fun in it, there’s meant to be, but most of the violence, I didn’t think that should ever be funny.
I imagine it’s difficult to accurately sketch the inner life of a group of teenagers as an adult, but Quinn and her friends feel especially true-to-life. Is this something you had to work towards or did it come naturally to you?
I was a teacher for a number of years, first in Boston, then in Philly, and I think that taught me a lot about what teenagers are like. Both taught me and reminded me. And I think the number one mistake some writers make is they either make their teen characters hyper-competent or completely condescend and turn them into jokes, but I think most teenagers more complex. They’re constantly warring with their brains and their bodies to stay somewhere in the middle of “smart, competent adult” and “pissed off child only just now able to articulate the absurdity of the world and the high school we’ve sent them to.” Teens have a lot going on and I tried to be sensitive to that.
You do an excellent job of reckoning with our current socio-political moment without laying it on too thick. How did you manage to thread that needle?
The “I don’t want someone to take something I said in a book the wrong way—politically—and then beat me up in a parking lot” fear kept my hand pretty even on the throttle. And that’s not to say the novel tries to play both sides, it’s clearly got a point of view, but I find “message” or overly-didactic books a complete bore. So I tried to go easy with it. It’s more about the events and characters and less about whatever allegory people do or don’t want to read into it.
Which character are you fondest of and why?
Janet. Who’s actually the closest to a cut-and-dry archetype that the book has, being the mean girl, but those characters fascinate me. I’m a fan of Rust, the hunter/survivalist kid, as well.
Were there any specific films that you turned to for inspiration for CLOWN IN A CORNFIELD?
With the exception of watching stuff with my wife, I tried to only watch slasher films while I was drafting. It was wonderful. I even revisited stuff from the late ’90s I initially wasn’t a fan of, mostly because I was a dopey kid when those movies came out, and I wanted to pretend I was some kind of ’70s and ’80s horror purest. There’s something I love in every decade of slasher.
Just like a top-notch slasher, CLOWN IN A CORNFIELD practically begs for a sequel. Can we look forward to one in the future?
If sales justify it for HarperTeen, the publisher, then I’m 100% game. But this one wasn’t written to be a series. It’s completely standalone, but at the same time, I was laying in ideas and themes that could extend… if the winds of fate saw fit to bless us with strong sales. Temple Hill Entertainment is attached to do the film adaptation. So I’m sure a hit movie would help Frendo the Clown to return. Fingers crossed.
What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
High-fructose corn syrup is the devil.
Just kidding. I just hope the scares and ideas linger a couple of days after folks finish reading. Would be nice.