An Interview with Horror Fiction Writer Mike Thorn.
photographer: Robert Boschman
Mike Thorn is the author of Darkest Hours and Dreams of Lake Drukka & Exhumation. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies and podcasts, including Dark Moon Digest, The NoSleep Podcast, DarkFuse, Unnerving Magazine, Turn to Ash and Tales to Terrify. His film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, The Seventh Row, Bright Lights Film Journal and Vague Visages. He completed his M.A. with a major in English literature at the University of Calgary, where he wrote a thesis on epistemophobia in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. His debut novel Shelter for the Damned will be released through JournalStone in 2021.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be a writer?
I can’t remember a time before I started writing. For better or worse, it has been a lifelong impulse. I was always drawn to reading, which is probably where my interest in writing originated. As a kid, I was excited by fantasy and horror (J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and R. L. Stine when I was quite young, and then Stephen King when I got a little older).
Can you talk about the appearance of body horror and the grotesque in your work?
I’m interested in embodiment as a lens through which I can study the disordered nature of reality. To be clear, I like to orient my stories in body horror and visceral grotesquerie as a means of ultimately moving beyond the body. My fiction sees the body as a conduit or vessel for thinking about dissociation, alienation, the uncanny, the weird. What precedes our material existence, and what exceeds it? How can we even begin to process that which exists on the darkest peripheries? These are some of the questions that interest me. Dylan Trigg’s The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror was a game-changing read for me, and I am also interested in the ways that genre creators like John Carpenter, Kathe Koja and Clive Barker use body horror to express cosmic ideas.
How did you come up with the character of Paul MacFarland/Principal Peeler from “Mictian Diabolus”?
Without getting too specific, suffice to say that I met some scary adults in my adolescence. In that story, I wanted to draw on the aesthetics of Satanism as a deceptive mask for cosmic horror beyond customary theistic systems.
Do you enjoy reading books outside of the horror fiction realm?
Yes, I try my best to maintain a balanced reading diet. Outside the horror realm, some of my favorite writers are Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Randy Nikkel Schroeder, Nelly Arcan, William Faulkner, Joshua Whitehead, James Joyce, Don DeLillo, Niall Howell, Roberto Bolaño, Sylvia Plath, Erin Emily Ann Vance, and Charles Dickens.
You’ve discussed your influences in previous interviews in terms of authors and filmmakers. Could you share some specific short stories and films that impacted you as a writer?
Off the top of my head, some short stories that have impacted me as a writer: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”, H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, Jorge Luis Borges’s “There Are More Things”, Thomas Ligotti’s “Dream of a Manikin”, Hubert Selby Jr.’s “The Coat”, Eden Robinson’s “Contact Sports”, Robert Aickman’s “Ringing the Changes”, Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train”, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, Stephen King’s “Nona”, Ray Bradbury’s “The October Game”, Rod Serling’s “The Shelter”, H. G. Wells’s “The Empire of the Ants”, and several of the “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” from David Foster Wallace’s collection of the same name.
Some of the films that have had a conscious impact on my work: Nosferatu (1922), Black Mass (1928), The Black Cat (1934), The Wolf Man (1941), Blood of the Beasts (1949), La Région Centrale (1971), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Last House on Dead End Street (1977), Martin (1978), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Inferno (1980), Ghost (1984), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Prince of Darkness (1987), Bully (2001), Mysterious Skin (2004), Retribution (2006), and The Lords of Salem (2012).
How would you define a good story in a few sentences?
Above all else, I believe good stories depend on style and point of view. I’m much more interested in fiction that emphasizes atmosphere and conceptual ideas than fiction focused primarily on plot structure and character growth.
Do you have a favourite piece of art from a medium outside of literature that inspires your writing?
I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the tone and philosophy of Justin Broadrick’s music, especially his output with Godflesh: The album Streetcleaner (1989) springs to mind.
I also love Francis Bacon’s work. Painting (1946) stands out.
You’re a great fan of cinema - a cinephile - how does your love of films impact the stories you tell as a writer?
I often think in cinematic terms while writing fiction – I consider lighting, rhythm, angles, perspective, and sound. Of course, horror films offer me a lot of inspiration (especially in terms of imagery and atmosphere), but I also try to capture the sensations of avant-garde cinema in some of my stories’ more psychedelic/otherworldly scenes. I’m particularly excited by the work of Lillian Schwartz, Takashi Ito, and Michael Snow.
Your characters are sometimes fans of music, sometimes fans of film… how do you view fandom?
My fandom functions quite simply as a kind of escape – I’ve always felt a little bit out of place, and I’ve been drawn to fiction, film, and music as a means of stepping outside. On some level, maybe these things have also helped me better process and understand life’s complications.
So, on some level, I write about fandom because I am a fan. Fandom can manifest in various way across different contexts – it can be as much about “fitting in” or “belonging” as it is about retreat.
What does horror mean or include as a genre to you?
I find myself constantly returning to Stephen King’s reflection in Danse Macabre, a book-length essay on horror fiction and cinema. King states plainly that “horror simply is, exclusive of definition or rationalization.” What King suggests, then, is that this genre deliberately and fundamentally resists the delimiting nature of categorization, and that horror is anti-rationalist by design (I agree with this latter point, but I have some reservations with the former). In The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, John Clute asserts that horror is defined by its self-announcing affect: that is, horror describes texts that elicit horrified reactions. Surely this is one of the genre’s tenets, but I’m allergic to the idea of caging the genre’s definition within subjective reaction.
Horror’s anti-rationalism and affective charge offer us a way to claw through human societies’ manufactured façade of “order.” The genre, then, is not only affectively disruptive, but cognitively and philosophically disruptive, too. Most important to my work is probably the horror genre’s capacity for undoing the dangerous ideology of humanism, especially human exceptionalism.
Your characters range from flawed to unsympathetic, giving them a very realistic, unidealized quality. What do you think it is about these characters that makes them work in horror stories?
My horror almost always begins quite simply, with the terrifying experience of inhabiting a body and of managing a human brain. So, my plots hinge on characters who struggle with self-loathing, addiction, obsession, rage, paranoia, anxiety, and depression. These conditions and experiences are at the foundation of my approach to horror: my fiction depends on direct confrontations with the kinds of flaws and unidealized qualities you describe.
What do you think or feel when you look back on your past writings?
I don’t often look back on my past writings, but when I do, I tend to notice the faults: “I could have written that more concisely” or “This dialogue feels stilted” or “This scene is awkwardly paced.”
Have you had moments of questioning your vocation as a writer?
Yes, almost every day. I have gone through difficult and unproductive periods, but I always seem to circle back to this weird impulse: apparently, I’m just compelled to write spooky and disturbing things.
Can you please describe your writing space?
It changes. I’m spending some time in Toronto right now, but I have a desk beside my bed in my Calgary apartment. I usually write there, but pre-pandemic, I also wrote a fair amount in neighborhood cafes. Ultimately all I need is a chair, a flat surface, and access to headphones and music.
Should writing be used to influence political, religious, social, environmental views, etc.? Do your own views show up in your writing?
I think it all depends on context. I don’t consciously imbed my own views in my writing, but I think my issues with human exceptionalism show up. I’m particularly horrified by human exceptionalism within the framework of late capitalism, both in terms of ecological destruction and as related to the atrocities it inflicts on nonhuman (and human) animals. In an abstract way, my story “A New Kind of Drug” probably allegorizes some of these ideas. I also touch on these problems in “Fear and Grace.”
Who is your favorite character that you’ve written?
Probably Cate, from “The Auteur.”
Is there a story, book, or character that you wish you hadn’t written, or had written differently?
Nothing comes immediately to mind. As I said, I tend to be critical of my earlier work when I revisit it, but ultimately the stories are what they are.
If any of your fiction could be made into a film, with any director, which one and who by and why?
This is a great question. I would love Kiyoshi Kurosawa to adapt “The Auteur,” because I think he’s probably the greatest living horror director and it would be thrilling to see his intuition for atmosphere, framing, and genre applied to this reality-bending film-within-a-film concept.
Does your writing contribute to society? Does that matter to you?
I can only hope that my work is constructive in the right ways, but also destructive in the right ways.
What is your earliest memory of reading or hearing a story?
Honest answer? One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, by Dr. Seuss. I loved that story.
How did you conceive of the monstrous being in “Long Man?”
The idea of Long Man originated with a prolonged prank my older brother played on me when I was a kid, where he would make scraping sounds in his downstairs bedroom at night, which carried up through the furnace vents into my room. This creature was at the centre of an abandoned road/murder mystery horror novel I was writing from a mourning ghost’s perspective. Long Man probably emerged from my interest in mirrors as a device in horror stories, from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Do you think you see the world differently than non-writers?
I don’t really know. I guess my unconscious is usually storing potential ideas from conversations, relationships, news, films, music and books. I’m assuming that’s not something that happens with non-writers.
Is the end result more important than the process? Or the process? Or are they equal?
The end result depends on the process, so I would argue they’re inextricably tied. Although the process is not always explicitly apparent to the reader, it’s ultimately the reason for a story’s existence. This is not to suggest that there is a “right” or “wrong” process, but that stories don’t emerge fully formed as their end results.
In what ways are your writings a means of reflection?
In an abstract way, my fiction allows me to express personal life-long struggles with depression and anxiety. By virtue of its excesses and symbols, the horror genre allows me to bump up against the external things that terrify me.
Do you create to understand or do you express what you have already learned? Or is it some combination of both?
I believe it’s a combination of both, although I think my fiction often seeks to depict that which I don’t understand. I referred earlier to things that exist on the darkest peripheries, and I think my writing often attempts to peek into that blackness. I write because I don’t know, and because I don’t understand, and my fiction offers a kind of resignation to this fact.
What does it mean to be original or unique as a writer, particularly within speculative genres?
Speculative genres are defined by long-standing structures, motifs, symbols, and images. I think it’s generally important for writers to recognize and know the histories of the genre worlds they inhabit, and the most unoriginal books and films tend to come from creators who haven’t “done their homework,” so to speak. Originality is a difficult thing to characterize or define, but I think unique works emerge when creators approach their craft authentically, and with comprehensive understandings of the spaces they explore (fictional or not).
Are you better today than when you first started?
One can only hope.
Can you tell us about the process and circumstances around writing your collection Darkest Hours?
I wrote the majority of Darkest Hours while completing my master’s degree, so the collection draws on the environments, attitudes, and fears specific to academia. It’s also informed by the books, music, and films that offered me a means of escape during that time (lots of horror and heavy metal).
Do you have other publications in the works?
Yes. My debut novel Shelter for the Damned is scheduled for a February 2021 release through JournalStone. I also have an essay on Eaten Alive (1976) and Crocodile (2000) in The Cinema of Tobe Hooper: The American Twilight, which will be published by the University of Texas Press in 2021.
What do you think the future of horror and weird fiction will be?
Like all genres, I imagine it will continue swinging like a pendulum between differently favored modes and tones. Some cry loudly for the necessity to “legitimize” horror within mainstream contexts, such as the Academy Awards. My hope is that the genre will continue to become more transgressive, more impolite, and less mainstream.
What are the most intriguing books you’ve read in the past year?
Kathe Koja’s Velocities, Randy Nikkel Schroeder’s Arctic Smoke, Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed, Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait, Daphne Du Maurier’s The Breaking Point, Aleister Crowley’s The Book of Lies, Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, and Melancology: Black Metal Theory and Ecology, edited by Scott Wilson.
In the bleak landscape of Darkest Hours, people make decisions that lead them into extreme scenarios – sometimes bizarre, often horrific, always unexpected. Between this book’s covers you will find academics in distress; monsters abused by people; people terrorized by demons; ghostly reminiscences; resurrected trauma; and occult filmmaking. Ranging from satirical to dreadful, these stories share a distinct voice: urgent, sardonic, brutal, but always empathetic.
This interview was conducted by Farah Rose Smith in July of 2020.