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

Titling Stories: What’s in a Name?

I couldn’t title this post, so was reduced to pilfering third-hand Shakespeare. (More like what’s in a lame, right?) My thanks must then go to the thousand-odd suckers before me who’ve riffed on the romantic old clod’s work and thought themselves clever. Oh, for how, were it not for aping Shakespeare, would we title our movies, blogs, or shitty, small-time newspaper articles? That is the question.

ImageThis admission of flattery-cum-theft, nefarious as it may seem, serves as the perfect introduction: I’m rubbish at titling things. Always have been. To prove it, here are some recent examples: Continue reading

In Defence of Popular Fiction (Or Why I Hate Intellectual Snobbery)

Intellectual snobbery pisses me off. I’ve been thinking about it lately – specifically, the literature police and their blanket disapproval of popular fiction. Runaway successes like 50 Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code, The Hunger Games and Twilight, in particular, attract some of the ferocious critics around.

(You’ll notice I haven’t included the Harry Potter series. This is because, by and large, readers and critics hold the series in high esteem. Harry Potter is unusual in that it occupies the curious middle ground where integrity and commercial success coexist.)

I’m not here to defend the literary merits of any from the above list – I’ve only read the first Twilight and Hunger Games books and did not care for either. I am, however, here to defend both their right to exist and the ‘cretins’’ right to enjoy them. Even if these books are fundamentally flawed, people have still found enjoyment in them, have connected and shared spirited discussion over them. To me, that’s a wonderful thing. You might argue that these readers’ time would be better spent with X Author or Underground Classic Y, but that’s not how things have panned out. Popular success is popular success. There’s no formula.

Continue reading

The Merits of Formal Education for the Aspiring Writer: Part II

* Continued from Part I. This post originally appeared on Busybird Publishing’s blog in 2012.

Networking 101. Beginner’s class: ‘Hi, it’s nice to meet you!’

It has never been easier to network with other writers. Presentations from the aforementioned guest speakers are a great opportunity to network. My advice, should you find yourself listening to an industry professional, is to be engaged and make an impression.

Once you’ve physically met a speaker you can follow them online (most professionals have an online presence). Take an interest in their projects and do your best to make it to launches and events. Professional writers are human, too, and they’ll appreciate you making an effort.

(Who knows? They could even repay the favour when the time comes for you to promote your own work.) Continue reading

The Merits of Formal Education for the Aspiring Writer: Part I

* This post originally appeared on Busybird Publishing’s blog in 2012.

To those who haven’t undertaken them, writing courses can seem strange and alluring. A lot of my friends are curious about them.

            Do they teach anything you can’t find out on your own?

            What sort of assessments do you get?

            How accessible are they for beginners?

            Are your classmates a bunch of insufferable elitists?

Chances are you may’ve asked questions like these. You may have even taken it a step further and looked into some courses near you. Great, if so, I’m here to offer some personal insight. Continue reading

Graduating the School of King – a Guide to Reading for the Aspiring Writer: Part II

Continued from Part I.

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The market today is different from a hundred, even fifty years ago. These days, it’s a bloated beast of genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres (I may’ve made this one up). So just where the hell do you start?

Here’s an approach you might consider trying. Jump online. Fire up your favourite search engine and type in something like ‘100 Best Books of all time’. Scratch around, find the lists that look the most reputable – y’know, the New York Times, the Guardian, Time Magazine. Read plot summaries and delve a little into each book’s background. You want to find out why these books have had such a strong impact on not just one, but several generations of readers. Note the big titles, the ones that reoccur from list to list. These are usually good places to start. Novels typically don’t develop esteemed reputations unless they have substance to back them up. While you’re doing all this you should be making notes of any books that sound interesting to you. Remember, it’s important to keep an open mind. Continue reading

Graduating the School of King – a Guide to Reading for the Aspiring Writer: Part I

This post originally appeared on the blog of literary journal, [untitled]. However, Busybird Publishing significantly retooled their website and the post was lost to cyber space. Therefore, I’ll be reposting it here in two parts.

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Recently, I took part in a discussion about books with a friend I hadn’t seen since high school. Once we were like brothers but now, after this reunion-cum-heated debate, I think this particular friendship needs re-evaluating. We’d always considered ourselves voracious readers, so it seemed obvious that our first discussion in all these years should be about what we’d been reading lately. He was always headstrong, but I was taken aback seeing him get so worked up.

‘What’a’ya mean you haven’t read the latest Stephen King?’ he spat. ‘It’s been out almost a month!’

I told him I’d been busy, that my reading schedule had become relentless; I likened it to a busy restaurant, explaining that new books needed to make reservations if they expected to be read in the near-future. Continue reading