What first attracted you to horror writing?
I blame my mom. Mom is a Stephen King fan, and his name was one of the first I learned to recognize even though I’m not sure I could fully read when I did. Very early on, there was an enjoyment of fear in my house. You know that sort of fun kids get telling each other ghost stories? I was raised with that. That only grew when I was old enough to read myself, and I began devouring things like R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps and the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series.
I also spent a whole lot of my life outdoors. My grandparents had a farm in Oklahoma, and my parents bought 120 acres in the area too. Every weekend I was outside, often unattended. There was a pleasure in getting lost, and in feeling small.
I’m not sure when I learned “horror” was distinct from “literature,” but I was very disappointed. I don’t know if I’ve ever been separated from horror, and I recognize that I am an oddity of sorts. Many of my peers did not have a family environment which actively encouraged an interest in horror. But mom was a horror reader, and I think that’s what sponsored my love of the genre.
What is your most notable work?
Right now, I’d say that this would be my collection Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts. Unfortunately at the moment, the collection has gone out of print. However, a second edition will be coming from Journalstone in the Summer of 2022. But soon it’s likely to be my second collection, The Death of An Author.
I’ll also take “notable” to mean “distinct,” because I think I can give a more comprehensive answer. In Whiskey there are two stories which deal with political and cyclical violence. One is ‘Cabras’ and the other is ‘Volver Al Monte’. ‘Cabras’ is told through the point of view of an old left-wing insurgent whose tongue has been cut out, and ‘Volver Al Monte’ through the point of view of an old general looking for his friend’s daughter. The two stories tackle the same subject matter, but I would say that their characters are very different in how they view the world and what they want out of “justice.” The two stories, at their core, are about men who have done awful things in the name of a cause and now believe they deserve justice. Without getting into spoiler territory, however, that idea of what justice they believe they have earned is very different, and is reflective of the power dynamics often at play in internal conflicts.
In my upcoming collection, The Death of An Author, I would say my stories about Congressman Marsh are my most distinct. ‘The Cthulhu Candidate’ attracted more attention than I anticipated, as did the character of Congressman Marsh, who went on to become my recurring prism through which to express my horror of domestic politics here in the United States. Congressman Marsh is found in ethnic riots, campus violence, murders in embassies and extra-dimensional attacks on the media.
But I would also say in Death of An Author that my stories “With All Her Troubles Behind Her,” and “I Keep it In a Little Box” are going to be quite notable. Both involve the caverns beneath the surface of the earth. And apocalypse myths. They should be fun.
What are you working on now?
Right now, a short story based on my time living in Bogotá and also edits for my forthcoming novel, In the Devil’s Cradle. The novel is the most ambitious story I’ve ever told, and I’ve been pitching it as “The Shining during a national collapse.” It’s the story of one family trying to survive political polarization, the mobilization of armed movements, discontent from the military barracks and the machinations of an ultra-nationalist movement. Beneath of all of this though, there are ghosts, the ancient grievances of a country built on centuries of unresolved conflicts. And all of those ghosts are going to come calling.
Who do you admire in the horror world?
I’ll start with John Langan, who was the first writer I read as a college student that made me understand people were still writing weird fiction. Not only is John one of the most ingenious and talented among us, he’s one the friendliest. Brian Evenson too, who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in helping me out in my short career. Same with Gwendolyn Kiste, who’s just such an outstanding writer capable of writing a great variety of stories, and S.P. Miskowski, who I think does Straub better than Straub. Seriously people, read I Wish I Was Like You. Ridiculous how good that book is.
Nadia Bulkin is a brutal talent too. She Said Destroy is probably the best collection of weird fiction out there. Period. End of discussion. My friend Christopher Ropes is one of the most honest and heartfelt individuals out there in horror, and writes with such an emotional core that his book brought me to tears more than once. His forthcoming collection is another one that should be on your radar.
Matthew M. Bartlett is a gentle soul, a friend, and a great writer. He’s really been able to make his own brand and, deservedly I believe, has secured his place in weird canon. Jon Padgett too, not only for his outstanding fiction but for his work in bringing Vastarien to the world. John Linwood Grant has a fantastic breadth in terms of genre and character, and does an amazing job of promoting fellow writers.
Then there’s some folk your readers may be less familiar with. They should keep an eye out for Erica Ruppert, Sarah Walker, Paula Ashe and others who have solo work upcoming. Rohit Sawat’s The Endless Walk is forthcoming too, and it just blew me away.
There are many of my peers who I hold in ridiculously high regard. To name a few more, Mer Whinery, Jonathan Raab, Gemma Files, Laura Mauro aaaand … I’ll keep going if you let me.
Do you prefer all out gore or psychological chills?
Psychological chills. When I encounter gore-heavy content, I either get nauseous or I just find it funny. Because that’s often how it is depicted, as this splatterhouse slapstick. Sure it may be gross, but because it’s meant to be shocking it also invokes this reflexive laughter. There’s a risk in something being so gross it’s absurd, and if it’s absurd it’s funny. So when I write, even at the bloodiest moments, I want there to be a reason that this is happening. Some sort of significance in the gore.
But the stuff that scares me doesn’t necessarily need blood. I think of The Fall of the House of Usher, which had very little (if any) blood as the standard to which all horror stories should be held. Or the stories of M. R. James. There’s very little chewing of bones in those stories.
Give me a ghost, with very little explanation. A character who is suffering. And some sort of catalyst to put them into conflict. That’ll do just fine for me.
Why should people read your work?
My non-egotistical answer? I believe they’ll find something they like. My “method” of horror writing is to write characters I care about. If I don’t care about them, why should I care what happens to them? Why should it scare me? I should care about these people before they’re gone. So, my stories are very character-driven and character-centric. I’m as influenced by say … Chekhov as I am Poe, in this regard. Though I suppose that sounds a bit egotistical, doesn’t it?
My work is deeply personal to me, and I believe that it resonates with people for this reason. We’re all very uncertain right now, aren’t we? We’ve made it to what we hope is a end (not THE end) of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we all have our pandemic traumas. Mine is having to take an emergency flight from Colombia, and served as my inspiration for my last story in The Death of An Author. But we all share anxieties, particularly now. I’ve done my best to try and express some of mine.
Recommend a book.
Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Grossman was a war correspondent implanted with the Red Army during the Battle of Stalingrad, and his depiction of the battle is one of the most realistic portrayals of violence ever. Modeled after War and Peace, Grossman explored a variety of perspective from foot soldiers, to Russian families, to Adolf Hitler and researchers in Moscow. He was also Jewish, and learned of his mother’s murder in the Ukraine shortly after Stalingrad. He dedicated his novel to his mother, who he deeply regretted not saving. It is written with such simultaneous love and anguish. One of the truest horror stories ever written.