Adam Cesare on his Clown in a Cornfield sequel and why he loves teen horror
Adam Cesare on Clown in a Cornfield 2, slasher sequels, and why clowns are still scary
Adam Cesare didn't set out to make the prose horror novel Clown in a Cornfield into a multi-part slasher epic. The horror author's bestselling 2020 novel about a Midwest town terrorized by killers in clown masks functions perfectly well as a standalone story, with enough resolution to satisfy readers and plenty of lingering dread to please longtime fans of the subgenre. For Cesare, a lifelong fan of slashers himself, throwing in a tease for a potential sequel wasn't a promise of more to come. It was just part of the formula.
"The slasher sequel is so much a part of the experience that I think even though I was like, 'Well, this book is called Clown in a Cornfield. Maybe it'll do well. It's not going to be a huge hit. They're probably never going to do a sequel,' I was kind of like, 'OK, well, let me end this book the way a slasher would maybe traditionally end,'" Cesare tells Popverse. "That kind of final little shocker, that final little tag. It wasn't 100% written to be like, 'Oh, yeah. And then there will be two, and three, and four.' It just was part and parcel of that slasher experience."
Then Clown in a Cornfield did prove to be a hit, earning Cesare a Bram Stoker Award for Best Young Adult Novel and clearing the way for a follow-up story. With no advance plan for Clown in a Cornfield 2 in place, Cesare suddenly had to ask himself: Did he want to discard his original characters in favor of entirely new protagonists, or did he want the survivors from the first killer clown story to fight another battle.
"I've never written a sequel before, and every time I write a book, it sounds so cliche to say it, but you kind of do fall in love with these characters and the way that you built them, and even things that got cut or scenes that got cut that don't make the final draft, you're living with it for a long time," Cesare says. "You're living with them through multiple iterations until you finally get to the thing that is the final product. I knew Quinn, Rust, and Cole – which is a slight spoiler, because now you know who lives through the first one – and I felt so close to them that when I thought of the idea of kind of completely moving away from them, I didn't want to do that."
Same heroes, new horrors
Quinn Maybrook, Cole Hill, and Rust Vance are three teenagers from entirely different backgrounds who all find themselves unlikely centers of the violence in Clown in a Cornfield. Quinn is the new girl in sleepy Kettle Springs, Missouri, while Cole is the rich kid and Rust is a bit of a redneck outcast. Together, though, they find themselves fighting against a brutal conspiracy involving Frendo the Clown, the decades-old mascot for the town's now-defunct corn syrup company. Frendo, who's usually a fixture of town celebrations like Founders Day, has become the avatar of a brutal slaughter in which a group of masked killers descend on the teenagers of Kettle Springs, picking them off in spectacular, terrifying fashion.
As the title suggests, Clown in a Cornfield is full of unforgettable imagery that blends the pastoral peace of the Midwest with the utter creepiness of a hulking figure dressed like a clown stalking between rows of corn, ready to draw blood. But the sequel, Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives, is about more than just repeating that imagery over again. After surviving the tragedy of the first book, Quinn, Rust, and Cole, have all attained a kind of unexpected (and, depending on which one of them you ask, unwanted) fame, and it's not always the good kind. While they're heroes to some, the three teenagers are villains to others, as internet conspiracy theorists attempt to twist the narrative of what really happened in Kettle Springs to suit their own version of events.
"I really wanted to play with that idea of, even in this universe, because of the times we live in, because of podcasts, and true crime documentaries, and things like that, that if a slasher really happened, there would be an entire subsection of people that not only sympathize with the slasher, but would be like, 'The slasher, Michael Myers was framed, actually. If you look at the policing in Haddonfield, it was a terrible cover up,'" Cesare explains. "I really do think you could kind of take that to its extreme."
So, Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives finds Quinn, Rust, and Cole battling against a rising tide of voices who claim they're the real villains in the story of Kettle Springs, and returning to the town in an effort to set things right. Meanwhile, Frendo himself has become a kind of conspiracy theorist mascot, giving the scary clown an entirely new dimension of fear as new iterations of the mask, and the people who wear it, arrive to torment Cesare's heroes.
Scary clowns are, of course, nothing new in horror fiction, but Cesare went to great lengths to craft his own distinct version of the concept for Clown in a Cornfield. According to the author, Frendo's position as a corn syrup mascot was inspired in part by early 20th century clowns used as advertising motifs.
"I looked kind of backwards in time, and I looked at clowns, and clown entertainment, and Bozo the Clown, and the kind of Depression-era clown, and the prevalence of clowns in America," Cesare says. "And I was like, 'Well, these aren't scary.' They're not meant to be scary. We've only made them scary through kind of the accrual of people's coulrophobia, and saying, 'I'm scared of clowns,' all the time, which I don't even think as many people are as coulrophobic as people are claiming."
He adds, "So I wanted to back myself into having a iconic, scary clown character by [thinking], 'Well, what would start out not scary, and if you saw it in a cornfield in the middle of the night, rendered as a kind of hard plastic mask that someone's wearing, what would make it frightening?' And that's kind of how I got there. And I wanted him to be different, because I knew people would be picking up the book, and you have that weight of expectation, and I didn't want it to be what they were going to think."
But even as the Clown in a Cornfield story evolves with Frendo Lives, and even as Frendo himself takes on new meaning and new terror as the second chapter arrives, Cesare is still focused on the same emotional core that made the first book successful. At its heart, this is still a story about teenagers fighting for survival in a brutal world, something that resonates with both the author and his readers.
"[Being a teenager is] still a time where your body and mind are changing, and you're so full of anxieties and still full of real problems that I think the appeal of fake problems and people who are having a way worse time than you, because they're getting stabbed, is appealing," Cesare says. "There's something appealing about that. You can intellectualize and you can philosophize about it, but you can also just look at the pure lizard part of our brains that are like, 'I want to feel something,' and you're at a heightened state, in all states, when you're a teenager. I think there's something to that. So I think that that appeals to me, and I just feel like I very much remember what that feels like, so I think that's why a lot of my work tends to feature teenagers."
Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives is on sale August 23.
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