Mike Thorn is the author of Shelter for the Damned, Darkest Hours, and Peel Back and See. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Vastarien, Dark Moon Digest, The NoSleep Podcast, and Tales to Terrify. Visit his website (mikethornwrites.com) and connect with him on Twitter (@MikeThornWrites).
What first attracted you to horror writing?
Reflecting on my earliest childhood encounters with horror, I remember being initially attracted to the genre’s visual iconography, above all else. It seems impossible to separate my desire to write horror from my interest in reading horror. These two things are inextricably bound.
As I kid, I drew all kinds of bizarre creatures and fantasy worlds, often dark and grisly. It’s likely that my love of drawing bled naturally into the impulse to write…it’s hard to say, because I can’t remember a time before I started writing. I learned very young that writing fiction, regardless of genre, offered a kind of escape from all the environments that made me feel weird, out of place, doomed to failure. It became evident to me that I could find a literal lifeline in fiction, movies, and music, and that’s still the case. I’ve never truly felt like I “fit in” anywhere, so I’ve always depended on these escape hatches in a significant, almost desperate way. Writing affords me a similarly vital opportunity for disappearing.
Like many children of my generation, I consumed my share of R. L. Stine and Christopher Pike, but I discovered my most revelatory horror inspirations in my pre-teens and early teens. I first read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary during an in-school junior high suspension, and there was no turning back from there. Around that age, I was also drifting toward musical artists and bands committed to dark material and aesthetics: I connected, in a big way, to Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper, Korn, and The Cure. Horror felt like home. I don’t know how else to put it.
I’m not sure how I would define “notable” in this context, but I think each of my books reveals a different aspect of my creative self. Shelter for the Damned is my only published novel to date, so naturally it shows me working on a different register from Darkest Hours and Peel Back and See.
I think every book functions as a sort of metaphoric capsule for a specific time in my life. I first drafted Shelter for the Damned in my early twenties, and it shakes with the fear of transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. I wrote all the stories in Darkest Hours between 2015 and 2017, while completing my master’s degree; so, in addition to many other things, that book captures anxieties that are particular to academic spaces, routines, absurdities, and evils. With a couple exceptions, I produced most of Peel Back and See between 2018 and 2021, easily the most taxing, painful, and transformative years of my life. My books are all personal, although none of them are explicitly “about me” in any sense … but, to me, Peel Back and See is closest to the bone.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a second novel, called Cloven Hoof, which focuses on the reemergence of an infamous haunted house attraction. It’s very much a high school Halloween party novel, steeped in autumn atmosphere and heavy metal and melancholy. It draws on the Satanic panic and the Weird tradition. I see within the antagonist some quiet traces of Bela Lugosi’s screen personae. I think I’ll grow to love it once I find its shape in the editing stage.
What is your writing routine?
In all honesty, I don’t have one. My process and rhythms shift so often that it would feel dishonest to call any aspect of my approach a “routine.” I write when I can, as often as possible. That’s usually not as often as I’d like.
Several years ago, I used to wake up at 6 am every day, write for two hours, and then head off to work my day job for nine hours. I couldn’t seem to sustain that forever. There have been times when my depression got so bad that it completely debilitated me, preventing me from writing at all. I’ve also gone through stretches where I adhered to daily word counts or month-to-month goals. My creative rhythms change so often; I find myself constantly adapting to new circumstances. I’ve just started my PhD in Creative Writing, so the hope is that I’ll soon have more time and space to start developing my dissertation project, which will be a new novel.
Who do you admire in the horror world?
I’ll stick to living creators, to keep myself reined in.
I deeply, deeply admire Kathe Koja; I think she might be America’s most talented living writer, regardless of genre. I also really look up to Jamie Blanks, a multitalented and visionary auteur who is also probably the sweetest and most generous person I’ve encountered in the horror world. I admire Jeffrey Reddick, Robert Dunbar, S. P. Miskowski, Trevor Henderson, and Mark Shostrom. I’m extremely privileged to count these people as friends.
Other living authors I admire who have worked within the horror genre: Maryse Meijer, Gwendolyn Kiste, Bret Easton Ellis, Thomas Ligotti, Kristi DeMeester, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Eden Robinson, Peter Straub, and Clive Barker.
In horror cinema, some of the living creators who excite me (aside from those named above) are Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Rob Zombie, Takashi Miike, M. Night Shyamalan, Pascal Laugier, James Wan, Rahi Anil Barve, Eli Roth, Marina de Van, Shinya Tsukamoto, Lars von Trier, Eli Roth, Darren Aronofsky, Julia Ducournau, Marcus Nispel, Anna Biller, Sidharth Srinivasan, and Johannes Roberts.
Do you prefer all out gore or psychological chills?
It depends completely on context. More than anything, I’m drawn to strong perspective, authenticity, and a certain kind of artistic intelligence. I care a lot less about plot and subject matter than I care about the voice behind the material. I often see people reciting the dictum that depictions of violence must be “justified” in some sense, which seems absurd to me; the material conditions of our world’s reality are enough justification for art that shocks and disturbs. I believe we should never ask art to answer for itself. It seems, to me, like our way of policing or “grading” or constraining art according to our own limited and pre-established criteria, rather than encountering art on its own terms with a genuine sense of openness and curiosity.
I’m opposed to the oft-touted cliché that “restrained” horror is somehow innately “superior” to more visceral genre material. I would love it if we could do away with this narrative. Having said that, there are of course many writers of “quiet” horror and dark fiction who move me (e.g. Algernon Blackwood, Henry James, Robert Aickman, Farah Rose Smith, M. R. James, Helen Oyeyemi, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier).
Because it helps put food on my table? If you’d rather not do that, then because it helps put food on my agent and publisher’s tables?
In all seriousness, I think my genre obsessions find their way into my work, so fellow horror fiends should know that this fiction is coming from one of their own. But I also read and watch widely outside of the horror genre, and it’s my effort to convey something real about this world, to capture the experiences and observations of someone who fears basically everything. I take my work seriously, and I love and revere the traditions that I inhabit.
Recommend a book.
Just one? Oh man, this question is giving me anxiety. Okay, okay, no pressure…Hmmmm…
I’ll go with something recent: off the top of my head, I was stunned in a rare way by Lindsay Lerman’s I’m from Nowhere. It’s not a horror book, but it’s absolutely buzzing with honest pain and brilliance. Lerman’s voice is exquisite, powerful, undeniable. Everyone should read this novel. I can’t wait to pick up her next release, What Are You.