MIKE THORN, THE VOICE OF CANADIAN HORROR, TALKS DARK SUBJECT MATTER AND CURIOSITY
Mike Thorn is the author of the novel Shelter for the Damned and the short story collection Darkest Hours. His second short story collection, Peel Back and See, is coming from JournalStone this October. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Vastarien, Dark Moon Digest, The NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, and Prairie Gothic. His film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Seventh Row, In Review Online, and Vague Visages. He completed his M.A. with a major in English literature at the University of Calgary, where he wrote a thesis on epistemophobia in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. Connect with him on Twitter (@MikeThornWrites) and visit his website: mikethornwrites.com.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
Can you tell me about your childhood? What kinds of creative activities did you engage with? What were some of your favourite books as a kid?
I drew a lot as a kid, and I also started writing when I was quite young. I discovered C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien while I was in elementary school, and I was totally mesmerized by their books. R. L. Stine was my gateway into horror, but the real gamechanger was my first encounter with Stephen King; I read Pet Sematary while serving an in-school suspension in junior high, and that was the moment that everything changed. How would you describe your teenage years? What artforms did you gravitate towards? Did you have any standout teachers in high school? What were you reading?
I was totally obsessed with movies during my teenage years. Not much has changed on that front. Between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, I was convinced that I was going to pursue a career in acting. I performed in all the school plays, and I took some roles in my friend Brendan Prost’s early films. I had an excellent drama teacher in high school named Cynthia Stratulat. I devoured a lot of Stephen King’s work in my teens. I was also really excited by F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of the most seminal reading experiences of that period (and of my life in general) happened when I first picked up Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which shook me in a seismic way. How would you describe your curiosities once you graduated from high school? What big questions did you want to explore? What avenues did you first pursue as a young adult?
I wrote a lot of cringe-worthy poetry in my late teens and early twenties, which probably helped me develop some of the ideas about language that I would later bring to my fiction. I also started writing Shelter for the Damned in my early twenties, in a much more experimental form than the version that ultimately got published—initially I approached it almost like an epic prose poem. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the book introduces a lot of ideas that have haunted almost everything I’ve written since: the barely masked horror beneath polite surfaces, the dread of existential contingency, social conditioning, pessimism, addiction, and obsession. Can you describe to me your relationship with reading as an adult? How many books do you normally read a year? Has your taste in books / authors changed a great deal in the past ten years? What authors have really excited you over the years?
I used to read over a hundred books per year. I wish I could say that was still the case. I usually read between fifty and sixty books annually, but I imagine I’ll be consuming a lot more once I start my PhD in the fall. My taste in books has certainly expanded over the years—I try my best to read as widely as possible, across time periods and genres. Some of my favorite writers are Herman Melville, William Blake, Kathe Koja, Georges Bataille, Nelly Arcan, Henry James, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Hubert Selby Jr., Jim Thompson, Don DeLillo, William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, Roberto Bolaño, Thomas Ligotti, Yukio Mishima, Shirley Jackson, Bret Easton Ellis, Robert Aickman, Daphne du Maurier, and Robert Dunbar. There are so many folks doing exciting stuff in fiction right now. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Lindsay Lerman, S. P. Miskowski, Eden Robinson, Gwendolyn Kiste, Helen Oyeyemi, Farah Rose Paterson-Cisco, Maryse Meijer, Josiah Morgan, Kristi DeMeester, Joanna Koch, and Scarlett R. Algee. I'd love to hear your thoughts on Horror. What is Horror, how would you describe it? What originally drew you to Horror stories? Why do you think people enjoy being scared? What is the greater purpose of Horror stories, what do they do for us?
I’m always intrigued by the fact that Horror is the only genre named expressly after its intended affect. To my mind, though, horror is defined by much more than an immediate and embodied experience. By virtue of its inherent excesses and metaphoric functions, Horror allows for disruptive observation of both individual and societal truths that we would usually avoid acknowledging. This genre involves a constant dance between attraction and revulsion, and I believe that engaging with such a uniquely uneasy affective experience can result in powerful forms of discovery and dissolution. I think we turn to Horror as a means of glimpsing something beyond the parameters of day-to-day reality. One of the genre’s greatest assets is its ability to cut through performative propriety, both visually and thematically. There’s also a sort of comfort inherent to encountering such dark subject matter within safe confines: watching a scary movie or reading a scary book can incur the same feeling that you might get from observing an intense thunderstorm while sitting on your cozy living room sofa, steaming mug in hand. What non-literary art forms inform your practice?
I take a lot of inspiration from cinema and music. I can clearly see the influence of several filmmakers on my fiction (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Wes Craven, James Whale, John Carpenter, Rob Zombie, Lucio Fulci, Larry Clark, Tobe Hooper, David Cronenberg, George A. Romero, Eli Roth, Takashi Ito, and Dario Argento, among others). I also feel very connected to the music and creative philosophy of Justin K. Broadrick (Godflesh, Final, Jesu, JK Flesh, etc.). You now have a number of short story collections and novels under your belt: Darkest Hours, Dreams of Lake Drukka & Exhumation, Shelter for the Damned. From where do you draw your inspirations for your stories? What is the singular greatest challenge of writing a book? Do you ever feel super vulnerable emptying the contents of your mind onto a page for the public to read?
I draw inspiration from memories, relationships, dreams, books, daily news, films, philosophy, music, visual art … all over the place, really. Primarily, most of my fiction comes from a place of personal pain and/or curiosity. For me, the greatest challenge of writing a book is actually writing it, committing from beginning to end, seeing the thing through. Although editing is a time-consuming and exacting process, I find it easier to work with something once it actually exists. I always feel super vulnerable sharing my work with the public. My writing comes from a personal place, even if it’s wrapped up in metaphor and often centered around circumstances that are superficially alien from those of my own life. What has been the most difficult scene you've written so far?
This is a great question. I’m working on my second novel, with the working title Cloven Hoof, which involves a lot of moving parts and characters. I’m wading my way into a long climactic sequence that alternates between at least two POVs (maybe more … this book is going to require a lot of editing and reworking). It’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. Please wish me luck. I'd love to hear your thoughts on self-promotion in a digital age: how would you describe your self-promotion process? Do you have a positive relationship with social media, or do you find it overwhelming? What advice would you give to a young author trying to share their work with their community and beyond?
I have a complicated relationship with social media. I certainly find these platforms helpful in spreading the word about my work, and I’ve met many amazing artists and critics through Twitter (including you, Rebeccah!). I’m thankful for that. On the other hand, social media has had noticeably negative effects on my mental health. I find it all extremely overwhelming, to be perfectly honest. I would absolutely never use these websites if I didn’t feel I needed them to promote my writing. I would tell a young writer that social media is a necessary evil, with equal weight placed on both words: necessary and evil. I would recommend primarily using these platforms to positive ends: to share one’s work and to help boost others’ signals to the best of one’s abilities, to engage in conversation about the things that one values and enjoys. That’s how I try to use social media these days, personally. How would you describe the Calgary arts community? Is it an artist-friendly city? Are there any Calgary-based artists our readers should know about?
There’s a robust arts community in Calgary, but you have to know where to look. We’ve had a fairly artist-friendly mayor in Naheed Nenshi for several years, but our current far-right provincial government is decidedly anti-artist. So, there are some tensions there. I know some brilliant Calgary-based writers—Joshua Whitehead, Niall Howell, Randy Nikkel Schroeder, Sarah L. Johnson, Rob Bose, and Erin Emily Ann Vance (she’s living elsewhere in Alberta these days, but I met her through the graduate English program at the University of Calgary). I recently met Josh Desjardins, who records brutal and cinematic electronic music under the moniker Wolf Camo. He’s great. My friend Ash Thompson is a phenomenally talented photographer. My friend Madeleine Rose Star-Child runs a terrific YouTube channel on witchcraft and other esoteric topics. I also admire the work of model/photographer/artist Danielle Nicol. There are too many talented people to name, but those are a few who come immediately to mind! Soon you will be starting a PhD in Creative Writing through the University of New Brunswick. What drew you to this program? What project(s) do you hope to take on while studying there? What do you know about the Fredericton Arts community?
I was drawn to the University of New Brunswick because it’s one of only two programs in Canada that offers a PhD in Creative Writing (the other is the University of Calgary). I’m also really excited by the faculty there, and I’ve heard nothing but positive things from former students. I’m particularly intrigued by Elizabeth Effinger’s work and research. I’m hoping to write a new novel while I’m there. I’m excited by the idea of writing a Gothic novel within a contemporary context, but we’ll see what happens. I don’t know much about the Fredericton arts community. In fact, I’ve never even been to Fredericton! But I’m excited to explore. What are you looking forward to?
Right now, I’m looking forward to the release of Peel Back and See, my second short story collection. It’s probably the darkest book I’ve written, and I’m really proud of it. It comes out from JournalStone on October 29.