Joe Koch (he/they) writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Joe is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and Convulsive. They’ve had over fifty short stories published in books and journals like Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, The Big Book of Blasphemy, Liminal Spaces, and Not All Monsters. Find Joe online at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.
What first attracted you to horror writing?
I’ve always been curious about hidden things and inclined to look deeper into what’s dark or difficult rather than turn away, in life and in art, so when I started writing around 2015 horror was just my natural field of interest. I didn’t realize I wrote horror! I had some rather shocked reactions to perversity and murder in my efforts from a beta group and rejections early on, although mixed in with the “holy shit!” reactions there was enough praise to balance things out. And the first story I ever sent out had been accepted by a little journal, which is ridiculously good luck; that win kept me going when I was very inexperienced and really fumbling my way through the writing world in the dark.
I didn’t know I wrote horror at first because I didn’t think of creativity in terms of genre and marketing. I just wrote what I wanted to write. Finally, one afternoon after writing for about two years with only two acceptances—one a surreal retelling of Red Riding Hood, the other a time travel story about first-person shooter games and suicide modeled on Doom—I picked up a horror anthology for pure entertainment. I’d been burning myself out studying “good literature,” whatever that means. (It’s all so subjective, isn’t it?) The first story in the anthology was by Joyce Carol Oates. It wasn’t only disturbing; it was dripping with mood and tension and went deep into psychological material that rang very true to me. That was exciting; it hit on what I wanted to do in my writing. It used really beautiful symbolism and language, too. That’s when it dawned on me. I was writing horror and horror wasn’t just formulaic slasher flicks. Horror could be beautiful, meaningful, and rich.
From there I went on a crash course devouring as much as I could to catch up on all the great horror literature of the past, especially what was being written right then. I’d read horror as a fan and watched movies as a fan, but taking it seriously revealed a whole world of incredibly good writing on par with and often much better than so much of the popular fiction I’d read for book clubs or because a friend recommended a book here or there. So much was vapid or superficial, and the best horror went into the depths where I craved to go.
What is your most notable work?
My novella The Wingspan of Severed Hands is my longest work and seems to inspire a certain amount of admiration and devotion. I feel like it’s garnering a little bit of a cult following over time! It’s an intentionally surreal work with an emotional and personal approach to language in the more poetic passages. The plot combines a lesser-known Grimm’s fairy tale “The Maiden Without Hands,” which is all about female autonomy, child abuse, and body horror, with cosmic horror elements influenced by Robert Chambers and the Lovecraftian Yellow King Mythos. But it starts in a trailer park, and that’s really important. It’s not a lofty tale. It’s about very basic, real human struggles.
I took the surreal approach because it’s fun to read and write that way, and because I wanted the mental world of the adolescent girl hero of the book to be demonstrated in the way her passages were written. The distinctions between her reality and fantasy, between her true and false memories are blurred. Some readers find this difficult or frustrating because you are joining her experience more than sitting back and being told about it. You don’t always know what’s really happening because she doesn’t know what’s real. I interspersed the surreal passages with enough clear narrative scenes to guide the reader, I think, so if you lean into the idea of experiencing an unfamiliar consciousness, I think it can be an enjoyable and enlightening journey.
What are you working on now?
I’m co-editing my first anthology with Sam Richard of Weirdpunk Books called Stories of the Eye. The title is a nod to Georges Bataille, and the theme of the anthology is artists and models. We asked for stories about the relationships between artists and models, stories of how the creator and creation make and remake each other, and of the model’s role in the process: is the model disposable? Magical? Something more or less than the end result? And this of course asks the question of what we do with our models both personally and historically, as individual creators and as a culture where forgotten women (because it’s so often women) haunt our museums. The authors in the book will include amazing writers like Gwendolyn Kiste, Hailey Piper, Gary J. Shipley, and Donyae Coles.
In addition to putting the finishing touches on the cover and edits for Stories of the Eye, I’m working on a few commissioned short stories right now, and eager to get back to a novella I have percolating on the back burner. It’s a full first draft that needed to rest, like bread. I’m hoping to get back to it in a few weeks if I can avoid getting seduced by another short story open call.
Oh! That reminds me, my first collection of short stories is coming out on April 19th. The book is called Convulsive and it collects 15 horror stories about religion, abuse, desire, and gender written over the past four years or so. I’ve had over 50 stories published in that time and these are some of the best. They share transformation intent and contain characters with a range of queer and non-queer identities and pronouns. I’m really excited to see how readers respond! And maybe a bit nervous, too; but I try not to think about that.
What is your writing routine?
Pandemic changes and personal changes have disrupted my entire life, to be blunt with you. I’m no longer following any sort of routine as far as sitting at the computer or scribbling in a notebook in the garden because I have no garden, alas. I’ve lost so much over the past two years. Even without a formal routine though, as any writer knows, you live with your work. It’s always in your mind and you’re always working on ideas and chewing on story problems. Right now I’m allowing a little more time for grief, not only for my private losses but for the mass death which somehow we’re not acknowledging as a society with any sort of memorial. And I’m writing as much as ever while allowing this space, so it’s good. I’m not forcing it.
Who do you admire in the horror world?
I admire people who are capable of being true to themselves and their art without getting caught up in drama or actively creating conflict. Driving engagement by being a jerk is not the way to go. There’s a fine balance between standing up for your principles and vomiting opinions on everyone who gets near you. So often we don’t have the whole story about a situation and lose our focus on making something beautiful, something that matters. I admire creators who support one another and tread lightly through the mire of the online world, reviewers who labor for the love of reading, and publishers who keep their promises to authors.
Do you prefer all-out gore or psychological chills?
Why can’t I have both? Gore void of psychological meaning is really boring to me, and psychological chills without the guts to show me some guts is equally numbing. I think the point in horror is always to try to take the work further. Take a movie like The Thing: a behavioral treatise on group dynamics, effects of isolation, and male to male relationships combined with goopy maddening visual effects from a medieval vision of hell or an ergot trip. It’s so wonderful when a creator has the bravery to take all aspects of a piece to their logical or illogical conclusion and then push further.
Why should people read your work?
People should really touch grass, fall in love, make friends with trees and bugs, bake pies, and have long unhurried conversations with friends; but in between the important things in life, they can read my work to experience an altered state and go somewhere strange mentally, like listening to an engrossing piece of music.
A cool quote from a review said: “That degeneracy infects the writing, with Koch creating wonderfully dense and poetic prose that puts the reader into a dreamlike state, evoking a literary version of a death metal Sun Ra.”
Recommend a book.
It’s no secret I love short stories and probably read more of them than novels or novellas, so I’ll recommend the collection The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature, by Christopher Slatsky. It’s outstanding, beautifully crafted, and unblinking in its analytical dissection of grief.
Buy Joe Koch’s books