Cease, Cows loves dark fiction (“neo-noir,” we learned from our interviewee today), magical realism, slipstream, transgressive, and literary horror. Our founding editor, h. l. nelson, was honored to speak with a reigning champ of these genres: Richard Thomas. He’s the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press, author of three books – Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots, and Staring Into the Abyss – editor of multiple upcoming anthologies, and writer for LitReactor and The Nervous Breakdown. h. l. uses this LitReactor article he wrote as her go-to submitting guide.
She chatted with Richard about Dark House Press’s upcoming books, his own film preferences, and what it was like to be published alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub (!), among other things.
hl: How did you get roped into this crazy awesome writing scene?
RT: I woke up one day and was unhappy with my life. Not my life, not my family and friends, but the creative work I was doing. I’ve been an art director and graphic designer in the wonderful world of advertising for 15 years, but something was missing. When I saw Craig Clevenger was teaching a class at The Cult I took it. I’d recently discovered Palahniuk (this was back in about 2008) which in turn got me to Clevenger and Will Christopher Baer and Stephen Graham Jones. When Craig encouraged me to start submitting one of my stories, “Stillness” I followed his advice and sent it out. I made a lot of mistakes, sent it to the wrong markets, but eventually it was accepted by Cemetery Dance for their anthology, Shivers VI. I got lucky and Stephen King and Peter Straub ended up being in the book. So, I was hooked.
hl: How was that? When you received your copy did you, you know, soil your pants?
RT: It was amazing. When I heard the news I didn’t know whether to cry or dance, so I did this horrible weeping running man thing. I know that I just got lucky, that obviously King and Straub don’t know who I am, and that it’s not any sort of endorsement of my work by them, but it’s still an honor. I know that if ONE book is collected, and kept on shelves by readers, it’ll be Shivers VI. They did a trade paperback (several print runs, all sold out), a hardcover (yes, I have one, sold out) and a signed/limited hardcover, that hasn’t even come out yet (I did order one of these as well, also sold out). It’s one of those books that I pick up, look at, and am just really proud to be in.
hl: Haha! Now I’m picturing you running through your house, half like Tom Cruise, half like Forrest Gump. I would be proud, too.
What about LitReactor.com and Dark House Press?
RT: When The Cult workshop shut down (where I’d been a workshop moderator) and moved to LitReactor.com I followed it over. I started out just being a member, writing stories in the workshop, but eventually I pitched them on the idea of a column and Storyville was born. I’ve written over 40 columns now, and have gotten some great responses. We have some other projects in the works, but it’s a wonderful community. I love hanging out there.
As for Dark House Press, the imprint I run as Editor-in-Chief, that position came about another way. I was editing an anthology for Black Lawrence Press (The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers, a collection of edgy literary fiction, all by women, out in 2014) and had so much fun, I decided to seek out more editing work. When I got involved with Dennis Widmyer and Chuck Palahniuk for an old Cult project, an anthology I thought had died, I revamped it, packaged it up, and I shopped it around, eventually selling it to Medallion Press. That anthology, Burnt Tongues, will also be out in 2014.
So, one anthology of literary fiction, and another of transgressive—what next? I’ve been a fan of neo-noir writing for a long time, so that was the project. I pitched it to Victor at Curbside, and he expressed interest. When I heard they were going to launch an imprint, I asked who was running it. After a few conversations, we decided that my running Dark House Press would be a good idea, and the rest is history. That anthology of neo-noir fiction, The New Black, will be our first title, out early in 2014. So many talented authors are going to be in this book—Stephen Graham Jones, Paul Tremblay, Lindsay Hunter, Roxane Gay, Kyle Minor, Benjamin Percy, Joe Meno, Brian Evenson, Matt Bell, Craig Davidson, Vanessa Veselka, Richard Lange, Craig Clevenger, Antonia Crane—it’s very exciting.
hl: That does sound exciting! I’m looking forward to that one.
What other new things are you involved in? We heard Stephen Graham Jones, the Guest Judge for our 2013 Flash Contest, was signed to Dark House Press recently. Who else have you signed and what do you have in the pipeline?
RT: There is so much going on for 2014, as I just mentioned, not only at Dark House Press but the work with Medallion and Black Lawrence. We’re excited about all of our authors, the tons of talent in the anthology, as well as Letitia Trent’s Southern gothic thriller, Echo Lake, Okla Elliott and Raul Clement’s dystopian fantasy, the Joshua City trilogy, and of course Stephen’s collection of literary horror stories, After the People Lights Have Gone Off.
I’m still writing my column for LitReactor.com, Storyville, just posted up my 40th. People have been asking if I’m going to put it all together in a book, but I don’t really know if anybody would be interested in that. I mean who am I? Just some hack. But my agent and I have talked about it.
I did have a bit of success recently selling a story to Cemetery Dance. That’s a dream come true, a white whale for me. Sent in a story last December, and 252 days later BAM, they took it. I was so thrilled. I mean, obviously they have a great history—publishing people like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Jack Ketchum, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, you name it. That will be out in 2014, my story “Chasing Ghosts,” which I wrote in my MFA program – a surreal bit of contemporary horror, a tense neo-noir with a bit of sex, some paranoia, and an ending I really like. Stoked about that for sure.
hl: I saw you say on a Facebook thread recently that you just have two stories from your MFA program-era that remain unpublished—is this correct? Where did you go to school? And do you think the program helped you overall? You know, was it “worth it”?
RT: Yes, that’s true. Only “Sugar and Spice” a father/daughter story, where he realizes his girl may not be so innocent, and “Moving Heavy Objects” father/son story where the grown boy realizes his dad isn’t perfect, and that’s okay.
But the published stories, here’s what I have out there: “Garage Sales” is about a mother and son that bond over these little shopping trips, after the father leaves them (Midwestern Gothic). “Chasing Ghosts” is about a young couple and how paranoia can destroy a relationship (Cemetery Dance, in 2014). “Tinkering With the Moon” is a bit of magical realism (Gargoyle). “Herniated Roots” is about an alcoholic falling off the wagon for a woman (Speedloader and my first collection, Herniated Roots at Snubnose Press). “Dyer” is my attempt at a Rashomon (the 1950s film by Kurosawa), four perspectives on one night in Dyer, Indiana (Beat to a Pulp). And “Terrapin Station” (Pear Noir!) about a man that carves little turtles, is looking for love, set in Grant Park here in Chicago; it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
I got my MFA at Murray State University in Murray, KY, a low-res program. Since I have a wife and kids, and work full-time, it was the only way to get my MFA. I just barely met Holly Goddard Jones before she left the program, but she’s been wonderful. I studied under Lynn Pruett, but my thesis director was Dale Ray Phillips who was nominated for the Pultizer Prize. He really taught me all about the short story form, and made me read a lot of authors I wouldn’t have on my own. He’s a genius, an encyclopedia of short stories. I’d write a story and he’d say, “Go read this Carver or Chandler or Hempel or Gaitskill,” and I would, and I’d see how others had done it masterfully. I’m still paying off this debt, but the authors I met, the confidence I gained, the brilliant people that came to read (such as Richard Bausch) – it was really inspiring. I hope that I’ll be able to teach someday, it’s so competitive right now, people with PhDs teaching comp and lit, very frustrating. It’s a little too early to say whether it was worth it or not, but I had a great time, and learned a lot.
hl: It is frustrating, I agree. I’m in the middle of my MFA, so in a few years we’ll see if we both think it was worth it!
I love the eclectic mix of writers that Dark House lists on their site as “Authors We Like.” When do you all reopen for submissions?
RT: Yeah, we need to get caught up. We got 400+ submissions for Exigencies, and 100+ novels and collections, as well as several agented submissions just recently. I’m not sure when we’ll reopen. I have to see what else is on the radar for 2015, since 2014 is full. I’ve toyed with the idea of a genre anthology, another “best of” for either late 2015 or early 2016—maybe magical realism, or Southern gothic, not sure yet.
hl: You know we love magical realism here at CC. I’m always excited when I see one in our pile!
What’s your favorite genre to read? To write?
RT: What I call neo-noir. It’s just contemporary dark fiction, but it’s not limited to horror – it can be speculative, fantastic, and it can be rural or urban, grotesque or transgressive. It relies less on the classic tropes, and more on the new conventions, as well as innovation and unique perspectives. Every author in The New Black is somebody I love to read.
hl: That’s really fascinating. I had heard this “neo-noir” term batted around a bit, but just thought it was a new take on the same ol’ genre. Now, I think it’s entirely possible that I myself write (and love reading) neo-noir!
RT: I think a lot of people may have that reaction!
hl: What about film? Do you delve into the darker ones or keep it light? Do you think film influences your work? What film/s have you seen the most?
RT: I watch a wide variety of films, but yeah, I do tend to lean towards the dark. But surprisingly I’m not a huge fan of classic horror films. The directors and films I love most are more likely tense dramas. I love the work of David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive), Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception) and David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven). Blade Runner might be my favorite film ever—I watch it once a year. I also loved Amelie and American Beauty. And the classic comedies, Stripes, Fast Times, Caddyshack, it’s hard to go wrong with them as well.
hl: Romero zombies or 28 Days Later zombies? And why?
RT: Man, of all of the horror tropes, zombies are probably my least favorite. I think I’d probably lean more towards Romero. I really enjoyed I Am Legend (the book), haven’t read The Passage yet, or World War Z. I like the humanity behind the monster, not just the gore and terror.
hl: Ah, ok. Well, what horror tropes and films are more up your alley?
RT: I like unconventional horror. So movies like The Ring or Blair Witch, they scared the crap out of me. I still get freaked out if I watch classic horror films like The Omen, The Exorcist, or Amityville Horror. As for fiction, I just read Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon (werewolves) and it was fantastic. Salem’s Lot, a classic. Maybe I just haven’t read the right zombie title yet.
hl: Who are your biggest influences writing-wise and otherwise?
RT: Growing up, and even now, definitely Stephen King—I’ve read all of his books. Later in life, after college, I discovered Chuck Palahniuk, and that showed me the risks you could take. Which pushed me towards the neo-noir writing of Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones. But then my MFA program added a layer, people like Cormac McCarthy, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O’Connor, Haruki Murakami, and Denis Johnson. Not to mention my contemporaries, all of those authors in The New Black. So it’s definitely an eclectic mix of voices. I’ve always been a big reader, since grade school. That and the movies, those films I mentioned, and a handful of television shows, like The Wire, Lost, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Dexter, Justified, and The Shield.
hl: Favorite flash fiction/short story? Your own favorite ff/ss?
RT: Three pop immediately into my head: “The Paperhanger” by William Gay, an excellent example of contemporary horror; “Puppy” by George Saunders, such a unique voice – this story just kills me, the love of a mother, even when, by all appearances, she is abusing her son; and “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit” by Stephen Graham Jones, which will be in The New Black – it’s just so shocking, so unexpected, and such a powerful gesture what the father does. But there are so many—I wrote a column on my Top Ten for Storyville.
Of my own, that’s tough. Of the shorter stuff, the flash, probably “Fireflies” (Polluto) which I’ve read a lot at various functions, and which was just named as an honorable mention by Ellen Datlow for her recent Best Horror of the Year anthology. It’s a bit of magical realism, with a softer center. Of my longer work, probably “Victimized” (Murky Depths and Staring Into the Abyss, my second collection) because it really takes the time to develop the protagonist’s history, and how it makes her into this monster, as well as the unique near-future setting of the story. And if I can toss out one other because of its weird format, I’d add “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave” (Metazen, nominated for a Pushcart prize) because it’s so different than what I usually do, a list story, and the ending just about makes me cry every time I read it.
hl: What keeps you mootivated? (Hehe!)
RT: Knowing that I’m entertaining people with my writing, showing them a good time, whether that’s a scare, a bit of arousal, a good cry, or something sweet and touching. The support and kind words of people like you. And the thrill of turning readers on to so many fantastic voices, all of the authors I’m publishing at Dark House, and other places. People say it’s a bad time for books, for writing, but I say, “Bullshit!” There has never been so much compelling, hypnotic, and powerful writing as there is right now.
Richard Thomas is the author of three books—Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots, and Staring Into the Abyss. His over 75 publications include Cemetery Dance, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Pear Noir and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He is also the editor of three anthologies out in 2014: The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press), Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk, and The New Black (Dark House Press). In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.
Lead image: “2010.06.06” (via Flickr user Andy Simmons)