“The Burned House” features a non-linear narrative, with bits of flashback expertly woven into the story. Why did you choose this structure?
It’s sort of a form following function thing — Agnes has entered into a kind of dream state, and I wanted to reproduce that, and in all honesty, the story just came out that way and felt right. I tend to write intuitively, at least with early drafts, rather than figuring out ahead of time how a story will be told — or often, even what the story will be.
I’m tempted to ask specific questions about the story, such as why Agnes’ brother thought to warn her not to go into the house, and why she does anyway, but I’ve read in other interviews that you’d prefer that readers find their own meaning. Why is that important to you? Do you, as the writer, always know the answers, or do you leave some ambiguity even for yourself?
I think it’s really important that a story is allowed to go out in the world and breathe. It should have the ability to belong to its readers, and sometimes that might even mean readers changing the meaning from my original intention. Of course, there is a limited range of interpretations for every story, but I don’t like to be too rigid. I once spoke to a college class that had read a couple of my stories and I loved hearing some of the interpretations that were things I’d never thought of but found very insightful.
I always have my own ideas about what is going on in a story, but often there is a certain ambiguity for me as the writer as well. Still, stories need to make a kind of intuitive sense even if it’s not something that can be articulated or explicated — or when it’s something that would lose its power if it were. You can’t just have “then some more weird shit happens” or “arbitrarily end the story here.” At the same time, for me, the stories that leave me with more questions than answers are the ones that stay with me forever — some favorites that come to mind are M. John Harrison’s “The Great God Pan,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” and “The Daemon Lover,” and Robert Aickman’s “The Hospice.” None of the events in those stories feel arbitrary or random even though I couldn’t sit down and write you a point-to-point logical essay about the meaning or reason for everything in them either.
What do you find most and least interesting about horror as a genre?
Most interesting — to use a very broad term, “cosmic horror,” because for me, that is when horror fiction is at its most powerful — when it becomes transcendent, when terror and awe become inseparable.
Least interesting — most extreme horror. I used to kind of force myself to read/watch extreme horror from time to time and then one day I thought, you know what? I’ve had enough. I can probably go the rest of my life without dipping a toe in the extreme or gross-out subgenres and in particular explicit descriptions that revel in sexual violence against women. There’s also an idea running through some circles that extreme and explicit violence = transgressive and brave and challenging, whereas I find that is rarely the case. Just because something evokes a visceral reaction in its audience doesn’t mean it is any of those things.
To be perfectly clear, though, I have no objection to gore or violence in the service of telling a story and I think body horror can be a very effective approach to the genre. Shocking and truly transgressive imagery and explicit depictions of violence absolutely have their place in all types of art and storytelling — for example, I did recently steel myself to watch Martyrs, and in fact I really liked it a lot.
Do you watch horror films or television? If so, any favorites?
Oh, yes! I love horror in all its forms, and horror movies in particular. A few all-time favorites include Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, The Tenant, The Devil’s Backbone, Mulholland Drive, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Seventh Victim . . . More recently, films I’ve loved from the past few years have been almost exclusively indie or foreign and include Absentia, Kill List, Sleep Tight, The Devil’s Business . . . That’s only a few; I could go on and on about horror films new and old — there are so many terrible, terrible ones out there, but there is a lot of good stuff as well.
Television’s been more hit and miss for me. I think the horror I’ve enjoyed most on TV has been genre shows that do a single contained horror episode really effectively, like Buffy with “Hush” or Doctor Who with “Blink,” or some of the horrific X-Files episodes. I can’t think of a straight-up horror TV show that has consistently worked for me. I generally enjoyed the first two seasons of American Horror Story once I got into the tone of it, but it lost me in season three, and The Walking Dead never grabbed me even after a season and a half of watching.
Are you working on anything at the moment that you’d like to share with our readers?
This is the year I’m finally going to finish writing the novel I’ve been saying for years I’m going to write. I’m also working on a horror novella for a new line by the UK independent publisher Salt, edited by Johnny Mains, and on various short story commissions. I’m also working on a project in a new medium for me, and there might be more in new media — but that’s all I can say on those at the moment!
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