An Interview with Horror Writer Jeffrey Thomas.
Jeffrey Thomas is an American writer who frequently blends the genres of horror and science fiction. His books include Punktown, Deadstock, Blue War, and Monstrocity. His latest novel is The American, a supernatural thriller set in Vietnam, soon to be released by JournalStone. He lives in Massachusetts.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be a writer?
I don’t think there was one particular moment or epiphany where it clicked, but I can give a sense of the evolution toward the realization that a writer was what I wanted to be. I was more of an artist as a boy, who drew his own comic books. Gradually over the years, my word balloons and the descriptive passages above each panel began to crowd out the poor characters, more and more. From there, I guess in a natural progression, I began writing a novel (at age ten, I think) with just a few illustrations. Ultimately it became no illustrations at all, just the words. I completed my first novel at fourteen. This journey of mine was reinforced by the praise I received from several teachers for nonfiction and fiction pieces I’d written in elementary school. I wish I could thank them for that encouragement now.
Can you talk about the relationship between beauty and horror in your work?
It’s a most important relationship to me. There’s the power of contrast, obviously, the yin and yang of it; the struggle of light to not be extinguished by darkness, of life to not be overwhelmed by death, beauty by ugliness...but I feel it can be more nuanced and complex than that. In ways that I sense or can express through my work but not adequately articulate here, I think there can also be beauty within the horror itself. Some perverse marriage whereby you can’t, as in a yin and yang, separate these elements from each other. It’s something like how a dead and mummified bird you might find on the floor of an abandoned factory, with late afternoon sunlight streaming in to spotlight it, would hold a melancholy – grotesque, if you want – kind of beauty. Not everyone would see such an image that way, of course. Nothing is for everyone. I don’t feel every writer seeks to find beauty in the horror they create, by any means, but when I discover that beauty in my reading it really sings to me. The beauty might simply appear in the prose. Look at Blood Meridian; could there be a more harrowing, bloody novel? But that passage where the mules carrying bags of mercury fall off a cliff and are dashed on the rocks below in bursts of blood and silver is one of the most remarkable things I’ve read. A nightmarish image, rendered in beautiful language.
Has having children impacted the way you write, or what you write about?
Certainly. Before having children I could appreciate the fragility of life, the manifold threats to the innocent and vulnerable, but having children really brings that home in a way that can be starkly terrifying, if you allow yourself to fixate on it. Better, for me, to vent those anxieties through fiction. Also, my son is autistic, and I’ve expressed my response to that in a number of short stories, in ways that combine my deep love for him with the anxieties that I expressed above. Still, generally speaking, I don’t often write about children, I guess mostly because adults have more agency in regard to carrying a story.
Can you discuss how you came to write horror and science fiction stories, in particular?
Really not sure. My parents were avid readers and real movie buffs, not to mention both of them being poets, but neither of them was interested in horror or SF. Maybe it was with my generation – being a young boy in the early sixties – that the love of such things in the media started to become more widespread. TV shows like Star Trek and The Outer Limits had a lot to do with that. Back then it was still considered to be kind of morbid to be too interested in horror, as I recall – my second grade teacher was really disquieted by my interests, as she made clear to me – but now the public consumes genre entertainment as part of their staple diet. What I’ve always been attracted to most, with the fantastical genres, is the sense of possibility…the freedom they afford to the imagination. The palette has more room for more colors.
Do you enjoy reading books outside of the speculative-fiction realm?
Oh, yes. Though I do tend to read more horror fiction than anything else, I couldn’t subsist on that alone, just as I couldn’t eat the same meal every day however delicious. I’d get bored! I’m currently making my way through Moby-Dick, a gargantuan, challenging, and beguiling beast indeed. I also believe varying your reading in this way, as a writer, can help to broaden your abilities.
How would you define a good story in a few sentences?
That which holds your attention and engages you, whether it be through its characters, its events, or its atmosphere – ideally, I’d say, through all of these things – and is so immersive that you almost forget you are merely reading.
Do you have a favourite piece of art from a medium outside of literature that inspires your writing?
As with most of us these days, I’d say, I’m greatly fond of movies, but to choose just one that I would consider particularly inspiring is hard. Since its release, my favorite film has been Taxi Driver, and I do know that the dark urban environment it portrays was part of my early inspiration for my Punktown stories.
Does the culture of Massachusetts impact your work?
Hm. Probably in ways I’m too close to myself to notice, much of the time. I know I’ve set many of my stories that don’t involve fantastical world-building in Massachusetts. I love New England, I love the variety of the seasons; that has to have impacted me.
What do you think or feel when you look back on your past writings?
Mixed feelings! That’s because my early published works were quite the mixed bag in quality, more so than in style or subject matter (I’m still all about mixing that up). My approach was sloppy; I sometimes would literally write a story, print it out without properly proofreading it, then mail it off to a small press zine all in one day. If not in one day, still too swiftly and without properly polishing the work. But also, I’d often write a story based on the barest kernel of an idea, so desperate was I simply to be published in this or that zine. It was a crazy shotgun approach to writing and finding an audience. I am fond of everything I’ve written, in some way, but I wish I could go back in time and put a pseudonym on a lot of it! I can see my growth, my increased sense of discipline, through the years. I marvel at some of these weird fiction writers whose work I encounter now, who seem to come out of nowhere with very mature and accomplished work, like Athena springing fully formed from Zeus’ head. They must have had the good sense to keep their earliest efforts sufficiently hidden. Not to discourage people from reading my earliest stories – they should be entertaining enough, and I think there are still gold nuggets to be sifted out – but, please don’t judge me by them alone!
Have you had moments of questioning your vocation as a writer?
Sometimes out of self-pity, for not reaching the levels of fame and grandeur I might fantasize about, I’ve entertained the notion of walking away from writing…but that’s as much a fiction as anything I write. I could no more decide to stop writing than I would decide to stop eating.
Can you please describe your writing space?
It’s changed over the past year, because of problems with my old PC, which rests on the same computer desk I’ve used for twenty years. I had to switch to my son’s laptop, and I now write at an old Art Deco table in my bedroom rather than the living room. It’s been an adjustment, but it’s working out. At least now I can close the door to keep things more private, more quiet. Hard to believe now that I could write in the living room of my current apartment, which is all one large room along with the kitchen and dining area, with the family TV only a couple feet to my right!
Should writing be used to influence political, religious, social, environmental views, etc.? Do your own views show up in your writing?
Not every story needs to consciously express a view of that sort, either directly or through subtext, but I feel it is absolutely okay, and that it’s important we have so much literature that does. It seems sad to say this, but if you read about a huge number of people lost to some historical tragedy – let’s say the eruption of Mount Vesuvius – it can be hard to wrap our heads around it, difficult to properly empathize on the ground level. However, a writer could create a novel about one fictitious citizen of Pompeii, and tell their story and describe their tragic fate, and the hearts of readers will be moved. So too with the subject of murder…of genocide. A fiction can deliver to our intellects and emotions subject matter that might not resonate as deeply in a strictly factual presentation. So yes, my views on society, religion, etc. definitely do come through in much of my writing. In fact, having a vehicle for this was one of my main reasons for developing my Punktown universe.
Who is your favorite character that you’ve written?
I’d have to say my shapeshifting mutant PI Jeremy Stake, from my Punktown setting. He has the advantage of having had more time in my head – being the protagonist of two novels (Deadstock, Blue War), one novella (Red Cells), and several short stories – but also, he has a lot of good qualities. He maintains a sense of honor in a hellish world.
Is there a story, book, or character that you wish you hadn’t written, or had written differently?
Aside from what I’ve said before about ill-considered or rough-edged early stories, there are a lot of small details I wish I’d written differently in a lot of my books/stories. Sometimes that has to do with my growth as a human being, as society grows and changes. That is to say, I might have a more nuanced and informed view now of something than I did previously. And isn’t that always in flux? Also, there are always those little decisions you wish you could decide again, strictly in a technical sense. You want to take your painting down from the gallery wall and touch it up some more. Then again, my father, who was an artist, told me, “You never finish a painting…you just stop working on it.”
If any of your novels could be made into a film, with any director, which one and who by and why?
Wow…who doesn’t fantasize about this? What first comes to mind is my alternate history SF/horror novel Boneland, but maybe that’s because I’ve already written two drafts of a screenplay for it and…something may be happening. Dream director? Wildest dream would be Martin Scorsese (I’d love to see him do horror; Shutter Island was close, though not one of my favorites by him). A writer might automatically say David Lynch, whose work I adore, but Lynch very much has his own vision and is best left to that. David Cronenberg, returning to his SF/horror self? Nicolas Winding Refn?
Does your writing contribute to society? Does that matter to you?
It does matter, though it doesn’t contribute much. What little it does contribute, by way of entertainment and distraction from real world anxieties, I’m happy for.
What is your earliest memory of reading or hearing a story?
Maybe it would be my mom reading us kids The Night Before Christmas on Christmas eve, though I can’t narrow that down to a particular year. One year on Christmas eve she started reading us A Christmas Carol, but it’s too long for a bedtime story so I don’t recall her getting very far. I finally read it in its entirety in December of 2019.
Can you describe in what way your travels to and experiences in Vietnam have influenced your work?
Oh, in so many ways. I’ve been to Vietnam twelve times, the first trip being in 2004. My former wife Hong is Vietnamese, so I’d go there to visit her, then after she came to the US and we married we’d travel back there to visit her family, with whom I’m still close. I’ve set a few short stories in Vietnam, and my novel Blue War and especially my collection The Unnamed Country are set in a fairly thinly disguised alternate Vietnam, but most significantly, my new novel The American is set in Vietnam. It’s a supernatural horror thriller that spans fifty years. I began writing The American in 2010, neglected it for about nine years, finally came back to it after further trips to Vietnam and fresh inspiration.
What is your favorite story by H.P. Lovecraft?
Again, it’s hard to choose. Those longer works The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness compete for first place, but of the (relatively) shorter work I’d have to say The Shadow Out of Time. Upon my first reading of it, its scope inspired wonderment, and the end paragraph really spikes that sense of awe, despite the fact that, “no reader can have failed to guess it.”
What is your favorite Clive Barker story?
Like many, I have great admiration for his story In the Hills, the Cities, but I have more fun with The Hellbound Heart. Of his novels, my favorite of those I’ve read is Weaveworld.
What is your favorite Thomas Hardy story?
I’ve only read one of his novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, though it may be my favorite novel period. His work is so heartbreaking that it’s hard to take! Even one of his poems can spear me. Of the short stories I’ve read, I most enjoyed The Withered Arm and Barbara of the House of Grebe, which feel like horror stories, and are – of course, it being Hardy – painfully tragic. The latter is perversely grotesque and upsetting, and though not supernatural kind of makes me think of Junji Ito. As you know, I consider Hardy an influence and inspiration…his poet’s eye, the importance of place in his work, his living and breathing flawed characters.
Do you think you see the world differently than non-writers?
Not really, but I process what I see differently, by transmuting my impressions and experiences and reflecting them back to the world as fiction.
Is the end result more important than the process? Or the process? Or are they equal?
The end result is very rewarding (especially if you can sell your creation!), but the most fun is in the creative process. I can end up restless and miserable if I don’t have a story currently in the works, despite all the books I’ve written staring at me from their shelves.
In what ways are your writing a means of reflection?
Again, it goes back to how I view the world, how I take in and digest what I witness and experience. Reflecting on life through a creative mindset (something I’m sure I’m doing even when I don’t realize it), then acting on those reflections, helps me deal with things like anger or sadness at the injustice and pain in our world.
Do you create to understand or do you express what you have already learned? Or is it some combination of both?
I think that consciously I’m writing about emotions and observations I feel I already understand and want to express, but it’s possible that subconsciously I might still be feeling things out, weighing them, grappling with them. If this dichotomy makes for a challenging conflict in my work, all the better. I trust my subconscious quite a bit when it comes to the creative process. It knows better than this “I” does.
What does it mean to be original or unique as a writer, particularly within speculative genres?
That depends on the needs of the reader; many are comforted by the familiar, would feel put off by a work that was too different in style or subject matter from what they typically enjoy. And that’s fine! Not to seem pretentious, I hope, but for me as a reader and a writer, being original/unique is highly important. Don’t get me wrong; I have my own tastes, and if a story is just too out there in prose style for me to get my hooks into, or too over the top in terms of being whimsical or humorous (for instance, I don’t respond much to the “Bizarro” genre of writing), then it isn’t going to resonate with me much. That said, I’ve embraced many an odd book, written in many an odd style. I like to be challenged, stimulated; I don’t want to feel jaded. But does being original/unique ensure a writer will gain more notice? Well, one would like to think so, but it tends to go the other way for the most part, I believe. Most people prefer their media as comfort food with just enough of a dash of the original to give it a somewhat novel taste.
Are you better today than when you first started?
Oh yes. See my earlier comment about my initial small press work! But again I stress, I wrote some of my favorite stories back then alongside some of my least favorite stories. Mainly, maybe, what makes me better now is knowing not to churn out any more of those “least favorite” kinds of stories.
Is there any particular publication you would like to be remembered for?
I guess I have to say my first Punktown book, Punktown, originally published by Jeff VanderMeer’s Ministry of Whimsy Press, which introduced that setting…this because it’s what really got people noticing me, got my career (such as it is) started.
Can you tell us about the process and circumstances around your writing the first Punktown stories?
The origin of Punktown is an often related story! I was twenty-two, and my dad was driving me somewhere, and I saw a woman driving another car whose eyes were shadowed in such a way, the borders of her hair hanging down in such a way, that it appeared her hair was growing from her eye sockets. I imagined an alien race, then, that had bunches of thin optical tendrils in place of eyes. And with that, boom, as if the whole thing had been coming together in my subconscious and this was the final puzzle piece, Punktown rose up in my mind on the drive home. A nightmarish, far-future place where all manner of alien races would coexist with human beings, in which I could frame all manner of social commentary. To give you an idea of my influences then, and hence an idea of Punktown for the uninitiated, think a mix of Hieronymus Bosch and Mos Eisley spaceport. People often liken Punktown to the world of Blade Runner, but this was in 1980 and predated that film, not to mention the coining of the term cyberpunk, though it would be years before any of my Punktown work saw publication; first a few short stories, then the collection Punktown in 2000.
Do you have other publications in the works?
Centipede Press will be releasing a three-volume omnibus of most of my short Punktown fiction (most, because I’ve written and sold more Punktown stories since turning in that work). I have two short story collections due to appear, but they haven’t been officially announced as of this writing. And then there will be individual stories appearing in this publication or that anthology.
What do you think the future of horror and weird fiction will be?
We’ll see more and more diverse voices, as is being encouraged by forward-thinking publishers and open-minded readers hungry for fresh perspectives. I hope this can be done, though, with an appreciation of foundational works rather than a repudiation of what’s come before. I look at the sense of celebration to be found in the massive and massively valuable anthology The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer; the roots of the modern weird tale are embraced therein, along with work that represents this approach to diversity.
What are the most intriguing books you’ve read in the past year?
I hope it’s not cheating to go beyond 2020, to work I’ve read since this time last year. I do this so as to include Christopher Slatsky’s superb collection The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature. Rhys Hughes’ delightful collection Crepuscularks and Phantomimes was definitely an intriguing read. I’m a big fan of poet Meg Smith, and her most recent book is Pretty Green Thorns. Two books I found absolutely fascinating, if not conventionally satisfying due to their very complexity, were David Cronenberg’s novel Consumed and a translation of Gilles Perrault’s 1969 novel Dossier 51, which takes the form entirely of interdepartmental memos and surveillance reports. I loved Erica Ferencik’s novel Into the Jungle, which perfectly balanced her personal experiences and research in the South American jungle with intense human drama, giving me the sense of discovery I get with the Arkady Renko novels of Martin Cruz Smith…and speaking of Smith, I enjoyed his latest, The Siberian Dilemma. It’s not his best, but he has it down to a science at this point. Now…on to finish Moby-Dick!
Thomas' next novel, The American, will be released from Journalstone in November of 2020.
You can follow Jeffrey Thomas on Twitter @punktowner.
This interview was conducted by Farah Rose Smith in September of 2020.