On Horror: In Conversation with Emerging Writer Michael Patrick McMullen

Michael Patrick McMullen is an emerging horror/fantasy writer from Spokane, Washington. His debut short story collection, The Stonemason and Other Tales, was released in late 2013. (My review can be found here.)

The following is an email exchange between Michael and myself. Ostensibly, it forms one component of a forthcoming uni assessment which looks at the perception of the horror genre, and attempts to pinpoint its position within the spectrum of popular culture.

Many thanks to Michael for taking the time, and for giving such thoughtful, considered answers.

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Tell us about an experience that frightened you growing up.

I can’t think of any one experience I had growing up that really frightened me. I was a latch-key kid who liked to stay home and play video games, so I never found myself in situations that carried any risk. However, I was a very high-strung, anxious child, so little things like weird noises when I was home alone, or strange people would quickly send me into a panic.

What kind of reaction do you hope to elicit in your readers?

I tend to think about the end of my story first, and I know I have a good one when I can imagine someone’s heart sinking after reading the last sentence. I’ve always been drawn to the horror stories that elicit a helpless feeling. You know this character is going to have to deal with the effects of whatever happened to him or her for the rest of their life (however long or short that might be), and that’s not going to be pleasant for them.

A two-pronged question: What was the last horror film you saw and how was it? How do you think horror movies today compare to the formative films of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties?

I just re-watched The Blair Witch Project. I’m a little surprised at the amount of backlash that received. At the time it came out [1999] it was revolutionary. Nobody was doing that kind of faux documentary style for horror films – at least not with any commercial success. I think it still holds up as an effective horror film because of the simplicity, which I think is where the difference between the formative years and current horror really shows. If you think about the classic horror movies, they’re straightforward and not afraid of quiet. The Shining, The Exorcist, The Omen; the Eighties is where we start to see the transition into more effect-driven, blood-soaked shock horror. Even today, shock, instead of the slow building of suspense and dread, permeates horror. We get people jumping out of blind corners while the musical score bangs its fist on the piano keys. Audiences aren’t willing to wait for the big reveal at the end. They want to know who the ghost is now so they can have all the special effects and demon babies with black eyes.

Do you think there are certain traits that horror fans share?

All the horror fans I’ve met have a unique perspective on everything. We’re not apt to take things as they are, or as we’re told they are. Most of the time, we want to explore a topic to the extreme, allowing for any and every possibility. Horror fans are stereotypically thought of as pessimistic because we tend to look at new opportunities with a sidelong glance, but that’s really what makes us as a community so creative. The average customer looking for a new car won’t stop to think, ‘What if this car started murdering people?’, but a horror fan would.

What qualities does an effective horror story have?

What initially sparked my interest in horror, and what keeps me interested in writing it, is that a good horror story isn’t about the monster, or the demon cult, or even the graphic violence. It’s that these strange, evil, terrifying things are happening to regular people. Using the example of The Blair Witch Project; the Blair Witch isn’t what is scary. We never even see the witch. The fact that it’s happening to college kids who got lost in the woods is the point. We’ve all had that moment of What if I don’t make it home? So we instantly relate. A good horror story allows for the reader/viewer to so easily put themselves in the plight of the main character that we can’t hide from our fears. Just look at how many horror stories are written in first-person, and how many times the movies use the character’s POV.

Which horror writers do you most admire and why?

Edgar Allan Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, Will Ludwigsen, and Shirley Jackson are some of my favourite writers.

Who, in your opinion, are the key innovators within the genre?

I think Shirley Jackson doesn’t get enough credit for what her work did for the genre. Her books are intensely character-driven and psychological, something not widespread before she came along, and rarely done as well after. For modern horror, I think authors like Neil Gaiman and directors like Guillermo del Toro are re-claiming the idea that horror is a concept that can be applied to any genre, and doesn’t have to be a genre in itself.

What do your friends and family think about your fondness for writing horror fiction?

I’m from a conservative background, and I’m quiet and reserved most of the time, so I don’t think my friends or family expected me to write stories about demon statues or a pre-adolescent lovelorn serial killer. Even still, they seem to be fairly accepting of my work.

Have any real-life events inspired your horror writing?

I concentrate more on despair and situations that don’t seem as pleasant as they are because that’s been a theme in my life ever since I can remember. My dad died when I was twelve, and in school, I had the worst luck meeting people who actually stayed friendly towards me. Constantly wondering if the person you love, admire, or like hanging out with is going to be in your life the next day gives one a certain perspective about life that only horror can truly penetrate.

There seems to be a degree of crossover between the horror and thriller genres – particularly with sub-genres like psychological horror. What do you think is the distinction?

Thrillers seem more plot-driven, where horror is more character-driven. The characters in a thriller are there primarily to drive the situation forward, usually trying to gain or re-gain. In horror, the story is about the character trapped in a situation where they have no control. The situation is happening to them, not because of them.

What are your tips for aspiring horror writers?

Read and write a variety of material. The more versatile you are as a writer, in terms of what you can emotionally convey through your story, the more impact your stories will have.

Do you think it’s important for horror writers to occasionally branch out and explore other styles or genres?

Yes, I think it’s the most important. Horror is really a meta-genre. It can be layered on top of other genres, so I think writers who want to do horror are best served by reading and writing everything.

Horror film franchises are especially susceptible to remakes. What is your opinion of this?

Meh. Some of them are fine; others are just trying to get blood from stones. I don’t really watch the franchise movies anymore because they’re too homogenous.

Michael Patrick McMullen is the author of The Stonemason and Other Tales. His work has appeared in Every Day Fiction and SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine. He also blogs at www.michaelpatrickmcmullen.com
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