I cannot say enough about this book. I can’t pick a favorite story from this collection. I can’t wait for more from this author. He and these stories are just that good.
“Peel Back and See” is a perfect title to encapsulate these 16 stories. In each one, the characters go deeper and deeper into whatever they’ve discovered, uncovered, or searched for. The complex horror of each takes time to come to light. The reader is taken further and further into the inner world of each character’s particular depression, self-destruction, or struggle for answers. The sheer weirdness grows and grows as you read – I’m looking at you, “Vomitus Bacchanalius.”
I also realized as I read that, for each story’s main character, the horror comes only because they went looking. This isn’t a monster-and-slasher kind of horror collection. Nobody’s car breaks down and they’re randomly attacked by some terror from the woods. No masked figure attacks strangers with a chainsaw. These characters go looking for trouble, in one way or another, and find their own doom. Some regret it immediately. Others embrace the darkness.
The horror is also, like the author’s “Shelter for the Damned,” very psychologically driven. While there are indeed gruesome monsters, they are often so terrifying because of how they relate to whatever the characters are personally afraid of. And in the era of COVID, when so many of us have been trapped in our own heads more than usual with only the internet as an escape, stories like “Havoc” and “@GorgoYama2013” as well as “Fade to White” feel a bit closer to home than they might have in the world before. These characters feel isolated from society in a way we might not have understood so well pre-pandemic.
In fact, that was a main thought which I, Lit nerd that I am, kept coming back to – these stories are like a collection Poe might have written if he lived today, like Poe in the era of COVID. The terrors are often spawned by the characters’ own doings. The monster is inside the house, so to speak. Everything happens because of whatever demons these people are already fighting, whether poverty, academic pressure, depression, grief, greed, etc. Because of their internal struggles, they “Peel Back and See” something horrible.
The author’s unique and seemingly effortless mastery of language is a joy to read. Many of the stories will leave you thinking. Many may give you the creeps. One left me forever unable to look at my daughter’s dollhouse the same again. Overall, I’m just in awe of this collection and can’t wait to be horrified by more.
Today I’d like to welcome Mike Thorn, author of the horror novel, Shelter for the Damned, which I recently had the privilege of reviewing.
Can you give us your quickest description of your book?
Shelter for the Damned is a coming-of-age narrative wrapped up in a pessimistic, suburban horror plot. The novel is set in a deliberately ambiguated suburban environment in the year 2003.
Any particular reason you chose 2003?
Initially, I didn’t specify the time period at all (and I still don’t, within the actual body of the narrative). However, close to publication, I had a discussion with JournalStone’s managing editor, Scarlett R. Algee, in which we noted the book’s absence of contemporary details like cellphones and social media. I was undoubtedly writing about a horror-infected version of the suburbs I remember from my own teens. So, we decided to include a page at the beginning of the book stating Suburban Somewhere, 2003 to help situate the reader.
Makes sense. I noted the lack of cellphones. What are you working on currently?
I’m currently reworking a nonfiction, academic book proposal for a project focused on two horror filmmakers. I can’t share any details about that just yet. Wish me luck!
Sounds interesting! Do you like taking a break from fiction to change things up?
Thank you! I do enjoy slipping into nonfiction/critical mode every now and then (although not as often as I used to). I think writing essays requires a very different cognitive process from writing fiction.
Certainly. What is your favorite scene you’ve written?
I’m pleased with the third act of Shelter for the Damned, which descends into hallucinatory and semi-cosmic territory. I can’t say too much without giving anything away, but I drew a lot on the kind of imagery that draws me to writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.
I know exactly the portions you mean. It gets almost trippy but works perfectly for how the horror of the Shack has unfolded. I can see the Lovecraft influence for sure. What are some of your favorite classic stories that bend towards horror?
I appreciate that! In terms of Poe, my favorite story is “The Black Cat,” and my favorite Lovecraft story is probably “The Dreams in the Witch House.” I love so many classic books in the Gothic/horror realm… among my favorites are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk, Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Macbeth has always been my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and I would argue that it leans hard into horror, too.
I’d worry about anyone who didn’t find MacBeth horrific. LOL. What is one bit of advice you’d like to share with writers?
Read, read, read. Avoid limiting yourself to one genre. Read the classics, but also try to keep up with new releases. Read fiction. Read theory, philosophy, autobiographies, and poetry. Push against your genre biases: distinctions between “high” and “low” art are generally just elitist fabrications. You can learn from the stuff you don’t like as much as you can learn from the stuff you do like.
I agree 100% (as an English Lit nerd myself who loves bending genres). How do you go about discovering new releases and keeping up with the thousands of books released these days?
I try to stay tapped into the small press horror world, and social media is helpful on that front. In pre-pandemic times, I liked browsing the library and local bookstores, too. You’re right, though, there are so many new releases that it can be difficult to keep afloat.
Who inspires you to write?
I take inspiration from relationships, friendships, and banal daily encounters. I’m often very stimulated by conversations with other writers.
Weirdest thing that’s inspired you?
One of my darkest horror stories, “Long Man,” was partially inspired by a prank my older brother played on me when we were kids.
Ha! Whatever works! In a perfect world where you could cast your book for a movie, who would you pick for your main characters?
It’s hard to say, since my main characters are so young! I’ll just imagine that this imaginary production budget can cover the cost of a time machine with anachronistic era-crossing capabilities. A 13 to 15-year-old Nick Stahl would be fantastic for the protagonist, Mark. A 13 to 15-year-old Katharine Isabelle would be terrific for Madeline. I really love both of those actors.
Time machines are often essential for author answers to this question. LOL. It’s funny that Madeline in my head looked exactly like your actress pick! Which is interesting because you don’t give a lot of physical description for many of your characters at all. Is that on purpose? I thought it was very effective how you describe Mark really only as he sees himself.
That’s great to hear! Thank you.
Yes, I deliberately minimize physical descriptions for my characters, because I draw liberally on the power of familiarity and memory. In Shelter for the Damned, especially, I wanted my readers to flesh out this space of “Suburban Somewhere” with their own recollections and points of reference.
Mark’s self-image is key to his psychological state, though, so it was important that I apply some description in that case.
Yes! His self-image was definitely important to the story. When you get stuck in your writing, how do you make yourself keep going?
I usually just charge ahead and remind myself that first drafts are almost always messy and imperfect.
Forcing yourself, nice. Do you work with an editor?
Once my work is accepted for publication, I work with press/magazine/anthology/podcast editors. I have a few trusted readers who I consult for my early drafts.
Do you use your personal experiences in your writing?
All my fiction is personal, but I usually write about my personal experiences in abstracted ways. The horror genre offers unique possibilities for expression through excess and metaphor.
Getting into real life issues, I was impressed by how your book deals with the topic of “masculine conditioning” in particular. The use of the 2 main fathers in particular was subtle but underscored everything happening with the boys. Was that societal issue something that was important for you to touch on?
Thanks again, Sunshine. I don’t usually set out to write with specific messages or thematic concerns in mind, but there’s no doubt that I was grappling with problems around masculine conditioning here. As I was reviewing later drafts of Shelter for the Damned, it became clear to me that the novel was saying things about addiction, suburban violence, domestic abuse, and certainly masculine conditioning. I tried my best to attribute these issues with as much gravitas and realism as possible.
While looking for a secret place to smoke cigarettes with his two best friends, troubled teenager Mark discovers a mysterious shack in a suburban field. Alienated from his parents and peers, Mark finds within the shack an escape greater than anything he has ever experienced.
But it isn’t long before the place begins revealing its strange, powerful sentience. And it wants something in exchange for the shelter it provides.
Shelter for the Damned is not only a scary, fast-paced horror novel, but also an unflinching study of suburban violence, masculine conditioning, and adolescent rage.
To sum up my thoughts on this book in one word, I’m IMPRESSED. Horror books can be predictable and all read the same after a while, and it’s rare that I come across one that stands out as being so deeply smart and psychologically complex while also being creepy and appropriately bloody. You can tell how much time and effort went into making this book as good as it could be. Though the premise and setting aren’t particularly abnormal, the author digs deep into the psyche of the main character and warps everything into a maddening descent from ordinary suburban life to a truly horrifying nightmare.
The writing itself is extremely enjoyable if you’re a nerd like me who applauds that sort of thing. The dialogue is completely believable as coming from teenage boys. Even beyond that, it feels like you’re hearing the adults speak through the ears of a teenage delinquent – the parents sound out of touch and full of hollow punishments, the teachers are bland and authoritative without much personality, and the abusive dad’s chummy charade is answered with humoring caution…for a while. The main aspect of the writing that I loved was that the descriptions don’t rely solely on visuals but also draw you in with unusual descriptions of smells, tastes, and sounds that remind you exactly of what the author means – for example, “empty, humming with the kind of drip-drop, fuzzy white silence saved especially for public restrooms.”
Again, this is a psychological kind of horror story. There are bursts of action that are quite graphic, but the slow internal buildup was the part that was even more frightening, to me. The toxic masculinity of the father figures is frightening in how subtly and believably it breaks these boys. I was never sure quite what to think of Mark, and that works great to pull you along, especially considering Mark isn’t sure what to think of himself as he untangles whatever the Shack is doing to him. And there’s something wonderfully creepy about using an unexplainable building as a source of evil. I loved the way it all starts as “a gust of heat sighed from inside, breathed into his skin, massaged his muscles and coiled his bones.”
I highly, highly recommend this one if you’re a lover of language who also likes a good horror story.
This one feels like it could easily be a movie. Set in a high school, centered around an upcoming dance, the story could be predictable and all-too familiar, but the interesting part for me was that this was from the perspective of a teacher. That certainly kept it from feeling like just another teen horror/suspense story. In addition, the main character has to cope with the challenges of being gay in a small community, and the author did a great job of using this to add additional drama to the story.
The characters at times do or say things that feel a little off or forced for the sake of the plot. It’s not entirely a shock who the bad guys are. But the main character really makes you care, and I kept reading because I felt for her situation and wanted to know she was going to figure things out and be okay. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the teen students. Again, they could have been typical teenagers you see in movies, but I liked that they weren’t all little jerks to their teachers. And their interactions were believable.
The horror/suspense aspects were pretty chilling at times, and this is certainly not a book for the queasy. There was one murder scene that was a total surprise to me, jumping the plot into serious tension very quickly.
Overall, I enjoyed this fairly quick read and would recommend it to anyone who likes dark high school stories with a twist.
Today I’d like to welcome Calvin Demmer, one of my favorite short story writers and author of the Dark Celebrations series.
Can you give us your quickest description of your books?
I currently spend the majority of my time writing short fiction. As a relatively new writer, this gives me the opportunity to experiment a bit more with different genres and styles. But I’d say most of my work falls under the speculative fiction umbrella, leaning towards the darker side of things.
Having read some of your shorts, I definitely agree about your work leaning towards the darker side, and I love that you play around with genres. In my experience, writing shorts is a very different process from writing longer works. If you start writing longer works (a novel, let’s say), what have you learned by writing shorts that will carry over to longer work?
I’ve learned so much… But some of the major areas are pacing, not overloading with exposition at the beginning, and keeping the story tight. With short fiction you’re always focused on making every word count and have a purpose. I think that is a great skill to carry forward to any other works.
Agreed. What are you working on currently?
My main focus is writing short stories and flash fiction then sending them to various markets. I was fortunate to get published in a few places in 2016 and hope to continue that in 2017. I also have a side-project, which are stories I write in my Dark Celebrations series. These are short stories that I write for pure enjoyment with no restrictions. They’re really about having fun with the story and are usually written when I need a break from the main focus. I’m also looking into some of my older stories with the idea of maybe putting some together for a possible future collection. This is a slow process as many of them do require some work. And then I’m also playing around with ideas for possible longer works.
Have you ever started a story or even finished a story and just not liked it, so you toss it? Or do you always find a way to use a story?
I’ve tossed a few away. I’ve also made stories work in the past, but I don’t like doing that and don’t anymore. There is always a fresh idea. When I started writing, I probably wrote just over 200,000 words that I never used. But I knew beforehand I likely wouldn’t use any of it as it was more for practice than anything else.
That’s a lot of practice! What is one bit of advice you’d like to share with writers?
One of the things I’ve learned is that the editing process is as important as the initial first draft. In the beginning, I neglected the editing side a bit. I now separate the two processes and give them equal attention. It’s a lot of fun during the first draft. Everything flows, usually, and it’s exciting to get to the next scene. Editing was a bit more labor intensive for me. However, it is where I can shape my story, give it direction, and make the story shine. As I get better at editing, I am starting to enjoy it more and more. I’ve also found that it helps to give myself a break from a story after the first draft and then tackle the work from a more critical standpoint when it isn’t so fresh.
Great advice. I’ve read a lot of books that could be great if the editing was better, and it’s an extremely important step that authors need to pay attention to. I’m glad you’ve found a way to enjoy editing (and it shows in your work that you take your time), but did you have to work at being critical of your own work, or does that come naturally to you? I know some authors struggle with that.
It comes easy to me. I battle myself quite a bit on some stories. There is a good and bad side to that. Sometimes, the stories never see the light of day because of it. Other times, the stories really come out great and shine.
When you get stuck in your writing, how do you make yourself keep going?
I find that having more than one project on the go works for me. I guess that’s easier when you’re focusing on a lot of shorter works, but even if I throw some longer projects into the mix it would still be a formula I use. I like to be able to switch to something different if I get frustrated or hit a brick wall with one thing. This way the writing never stops.
That’s a good system. When you’re working on more than one story at a time, do you find that thinking about one leads you to ideas for the others? I imagine that would help keep the creative juices flowing, rather than being stuck in one story.
It does, mostly because your mind is always active and gets used to thinking like that. I’ve been working on a story before when an idea for something else pops into my mind. Depending on how interesting and complex the idea is, I might make a note of it. But usually, the good ideas never really disappear.
Is there anything you’ve read that made you jealous you didn’t think of it first?
When I started just about everything I read and enjoyed made me jealous. I was amazed by some of the epic works like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Books like Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle also left me in awe. But as I started to write more and more, I realized that it wasn’t so much jealousy but rather an inner desire to create my own world and characters that was growing within. These types of works then became inspiration that fuelled me to keep on improving, so that I may also one day create my own colorful worlds and characters.
(That’s always where I hope authors will take this question – turning it to inspiration.) 🙂 Even though your work is mostly on the dark side, do you get inspiration from all over the place, or just stick to certain genres? How important is being well-rounded as a reader, to you?
That’s a tough one. Some people say you should stick to your genre and focus, while others say reading more diverse will make you a better writer. I don’t know the answer to that, but as for myself, I read almost everything. I do spend majority of the time in the genres I enjoy, but I also like the challenge of reading things I normally wouldn’t. As for the inspiration, I get it from everything. Sometimes works that are not in my genre will trigger an idea. I would hate to be closed to any avenue that could provide fresh inspiration.