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Showing the Wondrous, Weird, Magical, and Frightening: An Interview with Richard Thomas, author of Spontaneous Human Combustion

Anyone whose reading interests skew toward the dark should already be familiar with Richard Thomas. Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk says, “In range alone Richard Thomas is boundless. He is Lovecraft. He is Bradbury. He is Gaiman.” But most of all, he is Richard Thomas, whose new collection, Spontaneous Human Combustion, will be published in late February. Readers can pre-order their copies here. 

Richard Thomas author photo

Thomas recently shared his thoughts with Cease, Cows Contributing Editor Chuck Augello.   

Chuck Augello: Spontaneous Human Combustion is your latest collection. How do you approach putting together a collection of short fiction? 

Richard Thomas: For me, it was a couple of things. First, do I have enough work that I think is good, that is interesting, that is special enough in order to put together a collection? This is my fourth short story collection, so it’s basically focusing on my most current work, and if I’m continuing to improve as an author (and hopefully I am) then this should be my best work to date. I tend to write speculative fiction—fantasy, science fiction, and horror—so that’s the focus here, contemporary dark fiction. I’ve also been putting more HOPE into my dark fiction the last five years or so, and so I felt like these stories worked well together. Beyond that, it was just organizing it based on starting with a good one, and ending with my best story (IMO), and then mixing in fantasy, SF, and horror—considering length, tone, and vibe.

CA: What attracts you to the field of dark fiction? 

RT: I like experiencing a wide range of sensations in my work. I’m a maximalist—so I like heavy setting, immersive fiction, strong atmosphere. That just naturally aligns with horror, I think. I grew up with Stephen King, have read more of his work than anyone else, but I don’t write like him. (Though I do think my story “Nodus Tollens,” included in this collection, is the closest I’ve come to writing a “King” story—as far as storytelling, characters you can root for, tricky plot, etc.) I write dark stories because I want to create a safe place for these experiences, like riding a rollercoaster. I want to unsettle, to scare, to psychologically unnerve you, and show you wondrous, weird, magical, frightening things. When you can get a strong reaction out of somebody, I think they really feel ALIVE. And if I can really scare somebody—that spot between terror (hints, clues, the unknown) and horror (the reveal, the monster, the truth)—then my work should stay with you. Not just a cat jumping in a window—something much deeper.

CA: “Open Waters” is a story that stuck with me. Tell us about it.  

RT: That is so nice to hear, because I struggled with that story for a long time. It was part of a shared universe of stories that I wanted to turn into a book (I didn’t) and it just wasn’t working for me. Then I saw Black Mirror. Watching that show really opened me up to a whole other world of stories, plots, characters, and fears. The VR in this story definitely is influenced with my time watching shows like this, as well as Tales from the Loop, and other films. In a dark near future, where VR is more fulfilling than real life, I can see how that might be more appealing—to go there, to stay there, to avoid the real world. Bit of a “San Junipero” vibe here for sure. 

CA: A number of stories feature first-person narrators. What are some of the challenges when writing horror in the first person?

RT: I love writing first-person stories. For me, writing third is cold, distant, and minimalist at heart. What third does WELL is give you authority, especially if omniscient. It feels like the TRUTH. For first, I feel it’s much more intimate, you are INSIDE this person’s body, mind, and heart. I want you to put on that skin suit and walk around. I also write from a place of discovery—a pantser vs. a plotter—so as I’m writing I often don’t know all of the details. When my protagonist—a father, a bad cop, a gunslinger, a guy who loses a bet—makes a decision, I am making it with them, based on what feels honest, real, true, and in character. The biggest challenge, I think, is being able to absorb that personality as the author, have the ability to speak to it, to match your knowledge with this moment in time. Do you have the authority to tell that story? I do a lot of research. “Ring of Fire” alone caused me to spend hours studying the arctic, food rations, animals, psychological treatments, you name it. 

CA: There are some great openings in the collection, my favorite being from the story “Nodus Tollens,” which begins, “I’d been trying to find myself for what seemed like my whole life. Then a dark fate found me instead. I summoned something and drew its gaze upon me. This is how the suffering began.” Do you tend to begin “at the beginning,” or does the opening of the story take shape during the writing?

RT: Thanks for that. Yeah, I like that opening. When I start it’s all about finding the voice, the emotion, that inciting incident, and then letting it expand as the story grows. I teach Freytag’s Pyramid in my classes, and I follow that approach as well. My narrative hooks may come later—sometimes I get lucky, and I can find it, I’ve been able to get to the heart of it, the emotion, of this particular story and event. Other times I have to write it and then see where it goes, coming back to it later to make it work, to make it better. It’s tough—you want to hint at the story, without giving it all away. You want to hook with the title, the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, the first scene. So I try to use a shotgun approach, sprinkling the bread crumbs into the woods, as I manufacture this gnarly, five-pronged hook. Sometimes I’m going into a story based on a theme—for an anthology I’ve been invited into, or an open call to a magazine. That helps. If I have SOME information, some limitations, then it helps me to set the stage, to figure out the vibe, the mindset, the tone.

CA: Since It, clowns are familiar figures in horror fiction. In “Clown Face,” you offer a unique spin. Tell us about Bob the Clown.  

RT: There are two clown stories in this collection (the other being “A Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation”) and I’d never written a SINGLE clown story before. This story is directly influenced by a story Stephen Graham Jones wrote, that I reprinted at Gamut magazine—“The Darkest Part.” There was an image of pale skin being cut open to reveal a white paste underneath that just REALLY freaked me out. So I wanted to see what might be UNDER the makeup of Bob here. He’s a clown, right? This is his job. He has a family. He goes to the fairs and circuses and does his balloon thing, but underneath it all, I just felt like there was another layer to this monster. And then drop him in a suburban basement, close to everyone, and that bothers me even more, right? LOL

CA: You’ve published over 150 stories in your career, an impressive output. Are there specific elements that make something a “Richard Thomas” story? What do you do to keep the story ideas flowing?  

RT: I used to write more neo-noir and thrillers, so that used to be a big part of my voice. These days it’s more new-weird—that intersection between fantasy, SF, horror, and literary fiction—heavily influenced by people like the aforementioned Stephen Graham Jones, as well as Brian Evenson, Livia Llewellyn, Brian Hodge, Benjamin Percy, Haruki Murakami, Shirley Jackson, Jeff VanderMeer, and many others. So I’d say a story of mine these days is a maximalist speculative tale, that is heavy on setting, atmosphere, and sensory detail, taking you into some weird, surreal, uncanny spaces. But it’s not without hope. I’m definitely writing more “hopepunk” stories these days. As far as the ideas, that’s tough! I read a lot, I watch a lot of films (love what A24 is doing for example), and then I just open myself up to the universe and try to pay attention. Some of my favorites over there are Hereditary, The Witch, Enemy, Under the Skin, Ex Machina, A Ghost Story, and The Green Knight.

A story I’m working on now came from a combination of things—my wife and daughter asking me to kill bugs and mice when I’m a pacifist; a story I read in a best of the year anthology, entitled “My Name is Ellie” by Sam Rebelein; and my interest in scale, and Lovecraftian scope when it comes to monsters. We’ll see how it goes. A story I wrote earlier this year, “Rotten to the Core” came out of the idea of a guy doing something horrible and then how it eats him up from the inside out, poisoning him, but that core, that bone marrow, actually could be something that can help others. But then it gets weird, because he really didn’t learn his lesson. Has a bit of a Machinist vibe, too. Since I’m writing from a place of one idea or one emotion, I need to be very close to what I write—I must care about the subject matter, be equipped to tell it, and then find ways to show it that taps into my desire to write heavy setting, surrealism, and unsettling atmospheres. 

CA: You also teach writing. What do you feel is the most important lesson students need to learn in their development as writers?

RT: I think it’s figuring out who you are, as an author. It’s the first thing I ask my students to do in my Short Story Mechanics class. I ask them to name their top five authors, books, films, and tv shows. And then look for the vibe, the places it overlaps, and where it differs. Taking that as a starting point, I then talk about genre—what kind of stories do you want to write, and what are the expectations of those genres? And then what’s your style? Minimalist or maximalist, dark or light, first or third, long or short, bleak or hopeful? When I teach, I don’t want people to sound like me, or like Stephen King, or like Chuck Palahniuk. I want them to sound like themselves. Seeing students of mine like Sarah Read, and Daniela Tomova, and SL Coney break out—win a Bram Stoker Award, get into Tor, or Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine for example—that is so exciting. I’m just a catalyst, part of the equation, helping them to have these epiphanies, to figure out who they are, what they want to write about, and then how to do in a way that is effective, emotional, impactful, and with depth. And then of course, what King says, too, right? In order to be a writer you must do two things—you must read, and you must write.

CA: Who are some of the writers whose work excites you? Which writers do you wish were better known? 

RT: Oh man, so many. Well in addition to those that I’ve already mentioned—all authors I love—I’ll list a few more. In my classes I teach four book, Bird Box by Josh Malerman, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, Come Closer by Sarar Gran, and Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. So, those authors for sure. I’d add to that Mary Gaitskill, Damien Angelica Walters, Usman T. Malik, Kristi DeMeester, AC Wise, Maria Dahvana Headley, Kelly Robson, Priya Sharma, Steve Toase, Adam Nevill, Rich Larson, Mercedes Yardley, Gabino Iglesias, and so many more. 

CA: Finally, there’s no shortage of ways to spend time. Why do you choose to write fiction?  

RT: The short answer is that this is one of, if not the most satisfying thing that I’ve ever done. I love telling stories, painting pictures, transporting people to another place and time, where I can show them something they’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s something they’ve always wanted to see or feared existed. I want to make this world fall away, and cast a spell, hypnotize you, get you to feel a wide range of emotions, and leave you with an impactful moment or sensation that you can never forget. It’s hard to do it right, to find a special story, to stick the landing, but when you get it right, it’s thrilling. And so fulfilling.

For more on Richard Thomas, visit: About | – Richard Thomas  

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) is the author of The Revolving Heart, a Best Books of 2020 selection by Kirkus Reviews. His work has appeared in One Story, SmokeLong Quarterly, Literary Hub, The Coachella Review, and other fine journals. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut, a website exploring the life and art of Kurt Vonnegut. His novel, A Better Heart, was released in November 2021.