‘House of Fear’ Writer James Powell: The Horror News Network Interview

by Nick Banks

The entry into the horror genre usually happens at a young age, even if we are unaware of the dark path that we are embarking on. Whether it is watching classic Scooby Doo episodes, taking your first doom buggy ride through Disney’s Haunted Mansion, or finding a tattered copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at your school library, the seed has been planted for the journey.

Children in the 1940’s and 50’s, found their way into horror stories through the numerous comic anthologies from EC Comics (which would go on to inspire many other forms of the horror anthology tale in film and television), before being targeted by civic groups and disappearing for a brief time.  Luckily, these four color scares became even more popular (and infamous) over the years, allowing other fans and creators to pick up the torch and place it firmly on the dungeon wall.

James Powell is the latest “caretaker” to introduce young readers to horror with his upcoming all-ages collection from Dark Horse Comics, entitled House of Fear: Attack of the Killer Snowmen and Other Spooky Stories.  Powell took some time to speak to us about his upcoming graphic novel and how he crafted one of the stories with a lot of help from his young son.

Horror News Network:  What was the genesis of House of Fear?

James Powell:  I had just finished writing the first draft of a script for a graphic novel. It was the longest story I had ever written, and I was proud of myself for having accomplished something of that scale.

My son, Daxton, was in kindergarten at the time, and unfortunately, I didn’t let him read anything I had written to that point. He knew I had written comics, sure, but they weren’t intended for kids, so he had done little more than flip through the pages to see the art.

That night as we got ready for bed, he was a distant. Quiet. I could tell he had something on his mind, and he was struggling with how to ask me. Eventually, as I tucked him into bed, he asked, “Dad, when will you write a comic I can read?”

That struck me hard. Seriously. It was like a physical blow. Here was my son, one of the most important people in my life, sad enough to be near tears that he wasn’t allowed to read the stories I write. Seeing how happy and excited I was to create yet another story he wouldn’t be allowed to read must’ve been terrible for him.

I didn’t write for weeks. There were all these stories I wanted to write, and I needed to go in and clean up that graphic novel script. But I felt horrible, and my creativity dried up completely.

Then one night at dinner, an idea came to me, and I blurted out that my next comic would be just for him and other kids his age. His face lit up. He was so happy and couldn’t wait to read it. I told him it would take a while. After all, I hadn’t even written it yet. But I told him that when I did, he was going to help me write it. I could feel his excitement from across the table. He was absolutely beaming.

And just like that, I not only had a reader for life, but also a co-creator.

Horror News Network: Horror comics have a long tradition with anthologies.  Why does this format work so well for the genre?

Powell: There are so many things to be afraid of. There’s nothing you can’t look at and think, you know, if this everyday item was twisted in just such a way, it would be terrifying.

Anthologies are a great way to examine some of those horrors. Not all ideas deserve longer, drawn out stories, and anthologies often provide bite-sized horror that can scare you with nothing more than the right idea and an evil twist.

Horror News Network: Why is the horror host such an iconic, and long-standing, element of horror comics?

Powell:  I’m a big fan of telling scary stories around a campfire. There’s this incredible connection you have with your audience as you look out at them, the fire reflecting in their eyes, which are wide with anticipation. When you’re around a campfire, you’re telling a story through your own lens, so you’re giving yourself in the process. And the audience gives back with their gasps and intense stares.

To me, these hosts provide something similar. By reading their introductions, I realize that I’m not just reading a story. I’m sharing in something communal. I feel like I’m an active part of the story. And there’s almost an expectation that I’ll someday share that story with others just as the host shared it with me.

The more I learn about Boyle, the creepy caretaker of the House of Fear who introduces all of our comics, the more I see these hosts as guardians of the genre. Here’s this man who lives in this creepy old house who loves scary stories so much, that he has a library filled with them. He can’t wait to share these horror stories with you so that, someday, when you’re ready, you’ll share them with others.

Horror News Network: Was it difficult to tailor the stories for young readers?

Powell:  It’s certainly been challenging.

Right off the bat, I knew I didn’t want any blood. There’d be no extreme violence, either, and the kids in each story would never be any real-world danger.  But even with a few blanket rules, there’s always a concern that we’re making these comics too scary. We want kids to enjoy being thrilled by frightening stories, not give them nightmares.  They can’t be totally tame, though, either. I mean, what’s the point of a scary story if there aren’t any scares?

It’s proven to be quite the balancing act. When I finish a script, I evaluate the story as a whole and decide if I need to lighten this scene or add intensity to that one.

Comics are a visual medium, so it’s more than just judging the story. I’ve had to ask Jethro a couple of times to remove a small detail or two because the panel looked too extreme. Other times, I couldn’t bring myself to change the pencils, so I’d work with Josh at the coloring stage to see if there was a way to make it less intense.

Heck, there have been times when I’ve had to modify the dialog at the last minute as a way to lighten up a scene just enough to make the villain a little less frightening.

So yeah, it’s a balancing act during every stage of the process. But honestly, it’s that challenge that’s proving to be the most fun for me.

Horror News Network:  You actually wrote one of the stories with the help of your son.  What was that process like?  Was it his idea or yours?

Powell:  My son was born on Halloween, so when I told him we should write a comic together and I asked if he’d want to read a scary comic. Heck yeah he did!

We had recently moved to a new town, and as we discussed possible scenarios, he said he wanted a story about a family moving in next door to a haunted house.

We kicked around ghost story ideas over dinner one night, and the next day, I got to work on the script. For the next week, I’d tell him what I had written that day. Then I’d ask him at dinner how he’d react if he were in the situation the characters had found themselves in.  He was only 6 at the time, so some of his ideas were outlandish and silly. Other times they involved beloved characters from his favorite movies, which I clearly couldn’t use. But there was always a nugget of an idea that I could get him to develop.

We created a story that way, back and forth, with me asking him what should happen next. When I asked him how it ended, his answer surprised me. It totally worked for the story, and it was exactly what a kid in the situation would think to do. It was brilliant.

And with that, the script for “The Curse of Cottonwood Ct.” was complete.

Since then, Daxton has been an integral part of every story. Whenever I’m stuck, or when I want to see a scene from a kid’s perspective, I ask him for his input. His response is usually just what I need to keep the action going, but to also keep it kid friendly.

Horror News Network: What did the various artists bring to the series and each individual story?

Powell:  I’m so lucky to have an amazing team of talented artists.

Jethro (Morales) and Mike (Erandio) form a pair that bring a perfect balance between horror and kid-friendly. There’s fun and excitement that comes from their work, and I get a true sense of adventure with every panel.

Of course, I can’t forget about James Hislope, who draws the Boyle pages. The caretaker has a bit of a split personality, and James is deft at making the man warm and welcoming one moment, but creepy and mean when he’s on a nasty streak.

Adrian (Bago Gonzalez) drew the first House of Fear story. I reached out to him because he I felt his exaggerated expressions would work well for a kids comic, but I could also see he’d be good with a darker, scarier story. I’m amazed at how much movement he brought to key scenes, too.

Josh (Jensen’s) colors are incredible, too. I’m always amazed at how he can change the tone of a scene by modifying the colors just a little. He’s taught me a lot about color theory and how we can tie scenes and themes together throughout a story by tying together the usage of key colors.

Then there’s Matt (Krotzer). You’d think that letters are just letters, but Matt’s eye for design brings everything together. He truly makes the characters speak for me. The comic wouldn’t be a story without him; it’d just be pretty art on a page.

Horror News Network: Do you have more editions planned after this one? 

Powell:  I’ve written three more House of Fear stories, two of which the art team has nearly completed. I’ll have limited, monthly-style editions of both of those for sale at the upcoming Denver Pop Culture Con.

If this first Dark Horse volume sells well and readers show they’re interested in more, I’ll definitely be ready with another batch of comics. Boyle has a whole library of scary stories to tell, and I can’t wait to share more of them with horror fans, both young and old.

Horror News Network: What was your first experience with the genre when you were your son’s age? 

Powell:  I almost hate to admit this, but my first experience with horror was the movie Blood Beach. That came out in early 1981, so I hadn’t turned 9 years old yet. I have no idea how my brother managed to get me into the theater.

Of course, I was absolutely terrified. Images from that movie that still pop into my mind from time to time, and I feel that fear all over again.

To this day, I’ve never watched it again. I cherish the memories I have from the movie, and I don’t want to ruin any of that by seeing it through the eyes of an adult.

I’ll never know how I managed to sit through an entire scary movie at that age, but I do know I was hooked. I saw My Bloody Valentine the following year, and John Carpenter’s The Thing not long after that. When I discovered Jason Vorhees, or rather, his mom, I became a horror fan for life.

House of Fear: Attack of the Killer Snowmen and Other Spooky Stories will be released on May 1 at finer comic book shops and book stores everywhere.



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