D.J. MacHale is an alumnus of New York University and has had a career in film production that has taken him from freelancing as a writer/director for corporate videos and TV commercials, to working on or creating popular shows for kids. One of his greatest contributions to media is the show he co-created, Are You Afraid of the Dark? In addition to producing television content, MacHale has also written several books, and his latest book project is a spooky middle-grade anthology series called The Library. Wanting to learn more about MacHale’s career and latest books, I was able to interview him for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved experiencing? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
D.J. MacHale: I always loved stories that had to do with the supernatural. From Dr. Seuss’ What Was I Scared Of? to The Children of Green Knowe by LM Boston. When I was a bit older I devoured the collections of short supernatural stories that Alfred Hitchcock published. (With stories like Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds; Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game and of course The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs) I also was an avid reader of Creepy and Eerie magazines. In film, the number of scary films I’ve seen are too numerous to mention.
Yanes: Few shows impacted my childhood more than Are You Afraid of the Dark. What was the inspiration for this show? In addition to The Twilight Zone, were there any other properties that influenced how you shaped Are You Afraid of the Dark?
MacHale: The original idea for the show was to make a direct-to-video production of Bedtime stories for Lazy Parents. (That wasn’t the official title, it just describes what it was). The idea was to film an elderly gent reading fairy tales that parents could pop in for their kids to listen to. The road block was in deciding what fairy tales to use, because they were all so…boring. My partner, Ned Kandel asked me the question: “What kinds of stories did you like as a kid?” My answer: Scary Stories. So fairy tales became scary tales. (Which was the original title for the series: Scary Tales) From there the idea grew to having the tales told by kids around the campfire; to deciding it would be more fun to actually SEE the tales rather than simply listening to them. That suddenly turned the show from an inexpensive direct-to-video project into a TV series.
One property in particular that influenced my storytelling was the TV show The Wild Wild West. It wasn’t just a western. That show was filled with strange tales of odd villains with bizarre motives operating in highly stylized settings. So Dark? owes almost as much to that show as it does The Twilight Zone.
Yanes: Decades later, I still get chills when I think of “The Tale of the Frozen Ghost.” What are some of the Are You Afraid of the Dark episodes that still resonant with you?
MacHale: I have my favorites, and several less-than-favorites. But I may be the worst person to ask that of because my opinions are the LEAST objective of anybody you could ask. The reason being is that when I think back on the episodes, I’m also remembering the various challenges we faced to produce them and how difficult they may have been to pull off. I will say that my favorite episode is “The Tale of the Midnight Madness”. Not only do I think it’s a terrific episode, but subjectively speaking I have fond memories of it because in my opinion it was the first time that we really hit our stride with every aspect of the show. I also have individual moments from shows that I think of fondly. There are too many to mention, but a few off the top of my head: I love anything that Sardo did and said. I loved when the “Water Demons” made an appearance. The train scenes in “Train Magic” are awesome. I’m still blown away by the look of so many of the monsters we created. And the one single moment that will always put a smile on my face is when the Carney looks to the camera at the end of Zeebo’s episode and says: “It’s the most fun in the park, when you’re laughing in the dark.” I absolutely love that. Says it all.
Yanes: There have been several attempts to create an anthology show that tells a unique horror/dark story every episode. With the exception of Black Mirror, most have failed. What do you think has changed in the television landscape that makes it so difficult to produce a modern show similar to Are You Afraid of the Dark?
MacHale: Anthologies have always been tough to pull off. With most scripted TV shows, viewers become attached to the characters and will keep coming back to see what happens to them. It’s why they watch and become fans of a show. You don’t have that advantage with anthologies because there’s a different cast every week. You used to see more anthologies on TV, and maybe that’s because viewers in general have become less patient. With an anthology, it takes more of a commitment because viewers have to think a bit as they’re introduced to new characters with every episode. Nowadays it’s all about instant gratification, so anything that requires you to work a little bit could be at the mercy of a quick channel-flip. I’m actually surprised that my Midnight Society was such an integral and discussed aspect of the show, because for me, they were the LEAST interesting thing about the episodes. But in retrospect it makes sense because what they provided was continuity, and familiarity. They took a bit of the curse off of the fact that it was an anthology because they were characters that viewers grew to know.
Yanes: You recently started a book series called The Library, which already has one novel published (Surrender the Key) and another set to be published soon (Black Moon Rising). What was the origin for this book series?
MacHale: Like with Dark?, I was looking for a vehicle to tell multiple different kinds of supernatural stories, but in book form. Where with Dark? the organizing aspect had kids telling stories around a campfire, The Library is all about literary scary stories. What better place to find them than in a library? So the idea started with a need to find the vehicle to be able to tell multiple different stories. I then had to come up with the reason for this spooky library to exist and contain all of these stories. The beauty of what I came up with is not only in that there’s the possibility for so many kinds of stories, the fact that our continuing characters all play an active role in those stories takes a bit of the “anthology” edge off of it. So The Library is the best of both worlds. I can tell all sorts of different kinds of stories, while having the same characters play a role in all of them.
Yanes: Given that this series centers on a magical library, what is your favorite library to visit? On this note, what would your dream library be like?
MacHale: The bottom line with all libraries is that they are filled with possibility. Whether they are tiny, local branches or the New York City Public Library, they are all wonderous places brimming with ideas, information and adventures. I’ve always held a special place in my heart for the public library in my home town of Greenwich, CT. When I first got out of school and started to write, I would often do it at that library. Being surrounded by so many stories was inspirational. And it was quiet. (Though libraries have evolved. They aren’t so quiet anymore) Another thing that was so great about that library is that they had a Friday night film series where they’d screen great movies. That may not sound like such a big deal today, but that was before we all had 300 channels and the ability to see pretty much anything on demand.
Yanes: As you’ve developed stories for Surrender the Key and Black Moon Rising, were there any characters or subplots that took on a life of their own?
MacHale: Yes and no. I laugh at authors who say “Stories write themselves” or “My character tells me what they want to do.” I call BS. Yes, if you’ve created a solid, multi-dimensional character then you can’t have that character do something that isn’t true to what you’ve created. But the bottom line is, you created it! You made the decisions that made the characters what they are and you have concocted the challenges that they face. So once I fleshed out Marcus O’Mara, I no longer had ability to make him do anything I’d like. I had to stay true to his character in all the decisions he makes. But even with those parameters, everything he does comes out of my head.
Plots are a bit more fluid. For me, there’s nothing better than to put a character into a challenging situation, then figure out how they’re going to get themselves out. And Marcus is put into MANY challenging and scary situations. The fun thing is to experience the situation along with him, as if you’re seeing it through his eyes. And sometimes you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen until you’re in that moment. So in that respect, yes a story can take on a life of it’s own. But the overall story, for me, is something that I methodically plan out. I’m definitely the one in charge.
Yanes: Black Moon Rising is currently scheduled to be released September 2018, so what are your long term goals for the series? Do you see this going for several dozen installments? Also, are there any plans to develop this series into a TV show?
MacHale: Black Moon Rising was published in September of 2017. The third book in the series, Oracle of Doom, will be published in October of 2018. Right now, those will be the only books in the series. But who knows? I may be inspired to write more at some point. I do believe it would make an interesting TV series and I bring it up every so often.
Yanes: When people finish reading Black Moon Rising (the second book in this series), what do you hope they take away from it?
MacHale: The one theme that runs through all of my writing is the idea of self-empowerment. I always write about characters who are faced with impossible challenges and realize the only way to triumph is to meet the challenge head on, and not expect anybody else to help you. That’s what Marcus and friends do. Black Moon Rising is at its heart, a mystery. I’d love for readers to follow the clues along with Marcus, to try and figure out exactly what is happening, and why. Like with most of my stories, what seems to be happening at first is only the tip of the iceberg as the story grows and grows as the stakes rise. I’m hoping that as readers get deeper into the story, they’ll be constantly turning pages quickly to find out what happens next, and be surprised when it doesn’t always go the way they’d expect. It’s definitely a roller-coaster ride.
Yanes: Finally, what are some other projects you are working on that people can look forward to?
MacHale: Besides The Library #3 – Oracle of Doom coming out in October 2018, I just had an original audio book released called, The Equinox Curiosity Shop. It’s an amazing fantasy-adventure that I’m really proud of. Besides that I’ve actually turned a lot of my attention back to TV and film. I’ve been away for a while and I miss it. I have a few shows in development that my fingers are crossed will go to series. I won’t mention any specific titles because a) I don’t want to jinx anything, and b) I don’t want false rumors to start spreading about projects that may have begun as one of my book series…or TV shows. (How’s that for a tease?) But I’m still keeping my toe in the book world and I’m writing a science fiction novel that could possibly be a series. But it’s all very early in the process.