This month’s installment of Devious Dialogues goes off the beaten path in favor of a journey into the heart of darkness. A.M. (Anya) Stanley sat down with author Mike Thorn to discuss genre, writing and his debut short story collection, Darkest Hours.
Anya: In your first story of the anthology, “Hair,” you came right out of the gate with some of the most unsettling descriptions of the simplest thing that we’ve all experienced — finding a hair in our food. Some of the passages made me physically squirm. Do you set out to repulse your readers?
Mike: Well, first off, I think I owe you both an apology and a thank you. When I wrote “Hair,” part of my goal was to incite the kind of visceral reaction that you described, no doubt. The story originally came from a desire to write about addiction through the lens of genre horror. I knew that it needed to capture Theodore’s perspective while also allowing readers to perceive the nastiness that he’s unable to see for himself. My favorite horror fiction often tends to be impolite, unsafe, and yeah, often offensive. Having said that, while I think the affect of disgust is a good entry point, I don’t want it to be my endpoint. In other words, if my fiction is working the way that I intend, the readers’ affective reactions will work toward some kind of lasting impression.
Anya: They certainly do lead to those reactions. A lot of these stories are quite visceral, from people being skinned alive in “Mitican Diabolous” to surgical mutilation in “Lucio Shluter.” Their most jarring passages elicit disgust and shock within a single sentence. Some sections recall Chuck Palahniuk in their nihilistic ultraviolence, while others have a Barker-esque feel to them in their embrace of beauty in carnage. Is there a particular story or author that has influenced you in that regard?
Mike: I have to respond again with another sorry and another thank you. When it comes to the act of writing violence, I think I take cues from a lot of writers. Clive Barker would definitely appear on the list, and so would people like Georges Bataille, Kathe Koja, Frank Norris, Nelly Arcan, Jim Thompson, Hubert Selby Jr., Stephen King, Eden Robinson, Jack Ketchum, Joyce Carol Oates… all of these authors deal with physical violence on very different registers, but their names all come to mind for this topic. Speaking for myself, I want to lend violence with weight and impact. Depending on the function and point-of-view driving a scene, I’ll mine brutality for different purposes — the mutilation in “Lucio Schluter” is absolutely bound up in a character’s twisted idea of aesthetic objectification, whereas the characters in “Mictian Diabolus” only recognize threat in the abstract until it’s a visceral reality.
Anya: Your stories reference niche culture staples like death metal and urban legends. How much research do you undertake, and what sort of research do you do?
Mike: My research process varies from piece to piece. Before writing “Satanic Panic,” which deals with a specific and actual socio-historical milieu, I watched countless late 80s/early 90s Christian propaganda tapes. I also read The Satanic Bible and a lot of sociology scholarship on the cultural movement at the story’s center. By comparison, a story like “The Auteur” required much less research because I worked at a video store for several years when I was a teenager.
Anya: So, it sounds like some of these stories came along more easily than others. What was the hardest story to write in this collection?
Mike: Probably “A New Kind of Drug.” I went into that story with very minimal pre-planning. I knew that the two boys would go into the shed, and I had a rough idea of what would occur inside, but the narrative shape was initially unclear. I wrote myself into a corner and actually put it aside for a while to work on something else. When I came back to it, the remainder of the plot finally dawned on me. Usually, I stick a piece through from beginning to end, smoothing things out in the editing process. “Drug” was different in that way… it also disturbed me, to go to that place where I was writing so directly about the exploitation of the helpless. Now that it’s done, I’m so glad I went back to it. I’m pleased with the way it turned out.
Anya: For many writers, coming up with a headline or a title can be one of the most daunting parts of the writing process. How did you come up with “Darkest Hours” as your title?
Mike: You’re right about titling. Truth be told, it’s one of my least favorite parts of the process. When it came to “Darkest Hours,” this was the first thing that came to mind and it stuck. I think it sounds straightforward and colloquial, and I like that about it. It also applies to the book in a number of ways — many of the collection’s characters are living out their darkest hours; many of the stories occur during the darkest hours of the night, and this kind of fiction is best consumed at that same time.
Anya: I certainly devour the darker things on my to-read list late at night. Now, these stories have previously been published among several genre periodicals and fiction magazines, so it’s safe to say that you’re comfortable within the horror genre. What compels you to tell these kind of stories over science fiction or sprawling western epics? Why horror?
Mike: There are two answers to that question: first, horror is simply what comes out whenever I write. I’ve questioned why that’s the case from time to time, but it comes from such an impulsive and instinctive place that I don’t think I can give a concrete answer. Second, as I think you know from our many Devious Dialogues, I absolutely, honestly, totally love the genre. So, many of my stories come from a place of fandom, plain and simple — I try to write the kind of fiction that I would want to read. Also, as someone who has struggled with anxiety for a long time, I find that horror presents me with a really powerful tool for defense. I’m not always writing in a direct effort to fight off the things that terrify me, but it’s often the case that I am.
A.M. Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a Video Nasties columnist at Daily Grindhouse. When she’s not staunchly defending Halloween 6, she is a contributor to Birth.Movies.Death., F This Movie, Diabolique Magazine and wherever they’ll let her talk about horror movies. Read more of her work at anyawrites.com.
Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is available for purchase at Unnerving Magazine. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.