|Illustration by Luke Spooner, © LVP Publications|
Welcome to The Pulp Horror Author Interview Series. Today's interview is with Philip Athans who explores the fear of dawn and daylight in his short story "Morbid Dread of the Dawn" in The Pulp Horror Book of Phobias.
LVP PUBLICATIONS: What draws you to horror, both as a writer and as a reader? Who is your favorite horror creator? Who are your inspirations or influences?
PHILIP ATHANS: I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that any piece of writing can conjure an emotional response in a reader. For me, at least, the two hardest things any story or novel can do is make me laugh or make me scared. So when I find a truly frightening piece of writing, it both amazes me and makes me want to try to conjure that feeling in someone else.
Though as a kid I came into horror fiction probably through Edgar Allan Poe, he still seemed too old fashioned for me, a little impenetrable, so I ended up falling back into science fiction most of the time, then fantasy. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon H.P. Lovecraft, who sat at the intersection of fantasy and horror, that I started really reading horror. And of course, Harlan Ellison, who wrote across a spectrum of genres and combinations of genres, hit me right in the gut with the scariest science fiction story I’ve ever read: “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” Those two authors (with a few others on the SF and literary side) remain my Gold Standard.
LVP: What were your biggest fears as a child? Do you have any current phobias or fears now as an adult?
ATHANS: As a child? Everything!
I was kind of a nervous, depressed kid. I know I’m dating myself here but I remember running out of the room when commercials for The Exorcist came on. I would sit with a blanket over my head while my older brother watched Night Gallery. And all along I was desperately afraid of heights, something that carried through into young adulthood then suddenly just stopped being an issue. I also went through a period where I was so afraid of flying I almost gave up on it completely, but managed—with extreme effort—to work my way out of it.
I know what a phobia feels like, to be sure.
But now my biggest fears will all sound terribly pedestrian—dying before my son finishes college, for instance, and I have a terrible fear of Alzheimer’s disease—but that come with age.
LVP: Horror has a million sub-genres, from psychological to splatterpunk. Which sub-genres have you written in? What's your favorite flavor of horror?
ATHANS: I’ve written a lot of monster horror—that Lovecraft influence coming in—but probably tend more toward the Harlan Ellison, Mark Z. Danielewski side of things, what I guess it might be fair now to call “Post Horror.”
LVP: Is there any sub-genre or area of horror that you won’t go anywhere near? Any one area that is completely off-limits?
ATHANS: I’m not sure I have any rigid “off-limits” areas, but you’d have to do some fancy talking to get me into a torture porn movie, or back to the 80s slasher movies I used to go see (one after another after another) with my friends when we were in high school. I need more humanity than just “look at this weird way I thought of to kill somebody.” And I’m not sure what something like Hostel or Friday the 13th really has to say, while some even very commercial horror (Stephen King, etc.) can be grounded in a way that makes it a whole story, not jut a string of “horror” scenes.
LVP: In your opinion, what is the scariest or most terrifying thing you’ve ever written?
ATHANS: I wrote a screenplay that never gained much traction, besides making it past the first round in Project Greenlight, that I’m still trying to build up the courage to rewrite as a novel. I stopped writing it at least three times when it started giving me nightmares, but was always drawn back to it. As far as what’s out there for people to read? Maybe the short story “Piece Music” or the novel Completely Broken.
LVP: Have you ever had an idea for a story so scary or disturbing that you couldn't bring yourself to write it down? Tell us about it.
ATHANS: Not yet! This what you have to do if you want to write horror. You have to be able to turn to the darkest corner of yourself and not look away until the story’s finished.
LVP: Are there any ways that your interest in horror bleeds over (so to speak) into other areas of your life? Do you throw legendary Halloween parties, do you dress like Alice Cooper when you go grocery shopping, do you have a pet albino snake named Nosferatu?
ATHANS: If you walked into my house you would immediately identify me as a science fiction fan, but you’d have to examine my bookshelves much more closely to find the horror in there. There’s no Goth side to me—my wife would never allow it!—but when I sit down to write, it’s what naturally comes out.
I have no idea what that says about me.
LVP: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to try dabbling in horror writing for the first time?
ATHANS: Sit down and write. I teach a couple of online courses and there are books like my own Writing Monsters that can help, but writing horror isn’t something you can get a college degree in (if I’m wrong, please let me know so I can sign up!). And there is no licensing authority, nothing like the bar exam you have to pass to start. If you have an idea for a story, sit down and pound it out. You’ll find your level of gore/violence, your voice, your no-fly zones, and so on—respect that in yourself and don’t try to write gorier or less gory than you want, more or less sex than makes sense for you, and so on. The audience is there for less intense “thrillers” all the way through to the bizarro world, so whatever you gravitate to, there will be readers for you in that same orbit. Trends are meaningless and impossible to force. Be yourself, and write your stories.
LVP: What would you like your legacy to be? Or alternatively, what should your survivors engrave on your tombstone?
ATHANS: If anyone in my family pays good money for a tombstone I will come back from whatever Hell I’ve been consigned to and haunt their asses forever.
No one’s “legacy” is in that person’s control, and the world will march on without us.
LVP: Anything else you'd like to say or add? Any final thoughts?
ATHANS: Just can’t wait to see the book and read the rest of the stories!
~ Philip Athans is the founding partner of Athans & Associates Creative Consulting, and the best-selling author of Annihilation and more than a dozen other fantasy and horror books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com), is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans. He makes his home in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.
Pre-order The Pulp Horror Book of Phobias (paperback or hardcover) from your local indie bookstore through IndieBound, from Barnes & Noble or Amazon now... or come see us at Crypticon in Seattle, WA and StokerCon in Grand Rapids, MI to read this story along with all the other madness contained in The Pulp Horror Book of Phobias (including limited edition autographed phobia card sets, available at conventions only)!