|Illustration by Luke Spooner, © LVP Publications|
Welcome to The Pulp Horror Author Interview Series. Today's interview is with Michael Bailey who explores the fear of opening one's eyes in his short story "White to Black" 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?
MICHAEL BAILEY: Horror offers escape. As long as writers are creating dark fictional worlds, our sad and lonely not-so-light nonfictional world seems more bearable. Jack Ketchum taught me that people are the only monsters, that there’s nothing else to be afraid of; so, I guess that makes him one of my favorites, as well as one of my inspirations / influences. Besides Poe and King and Shelley and Gaiman, I draw mostly from outside the horror genre: writers such as David Mitchell, Yann Martel, Barbara Kingsolver, Raymond Carver, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, maybe even a little Chuck Palahniuk, Mort Castle, Susan Collins; some of their work dips into the dark.
And the women … there are so many brilliant female writers of dark literary fiction, so I’m always on the lookout for new work by Emily B. Cataneo, J. Lincoln Fenn, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Lucy A. Snyder, Erinn L. Kemper, B.E. Scully, Rena Mason, Alma Katsu, Linda D. Addison, Gwendolyn Kiste, Meghan Arcuri … I could go on for pages. I wouldn’t necessarily tag those writers as “horror,” but they write about the dark. And since I’m name-dropping, how about Victor LaValle and Josh Malerman; those two know what they’re doing. Inspiration and influence comes from everywhere.
LVP: What were your biggest fears as a child? Do you have any current phobias or fears now as an adult?
BAILEY: As a child, nyctophobia. I feared the dark, like most kids, like most adults. Let’s be honest, everyone is afraid of the dark in some sense because darkness hides the unknown. And I guess I always worried about becoming lost in some way, either literally or metaphorically, because most of my earliest and memorable dreams were about isolation. My childhood fears developed into what is now my biggest concern, losing the mind: memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s, everything winking out of existence, in other words. I’ve written close to a quarter-million words on the subject. And most recently, I discovered I have a fear of immobility, or cleithrophobia, the fear of being trapped. It makes me all sorts of anxious. Perhaps those two phobias are connected, or the same.
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?
BAILEY: I am probably most known for psychological horror, but my short fiction often bends toward dark science fiction and speculative, sometimes near-future stuff. Some of the stuff I’ve written about in the past has come true, so perhaps some of what I’m writing is “science future-fact.” Occasionally, I write dystopian and gothic, and poetry, but I always avoid the tropes whenever possible: demons, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, serial killers, “monsters” of not the human kind, and if I do cross that line, the blur is subtle or in the mind.
My story “White to Black” in The Pulp Horror Book of Phobias could be considered a “witch” story, if it needs to be categorized as anything specific for “horror,” but it’s much deeper than that. As far as favorite flavors of horror, I don’t read much horror, in all honesty (maybe 1% of what I read, maybe less), so I don’t have a favorite. I have more “least favorites” than “favorites” (see the next question / answer), so if I have to pick only one, then perhaps “psychological horror,” because I like exploring the mind, which is where all the magic happens anyway.
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?
BAILEY: Here’s a list (won’t read it, won’t write it, won’t watch it, won’t remember it), and in no particular order: slasher, found footage, urban legend, cosmic (unless done well), body horror, torture porn, anything gore-heavy, splatterpunk, bizarro, Lovecraftian / Cthulhu mythos, tropy stuff (from that earlier list, unless done well and / or incredibly subtle, such as Let Me In by John Ajvide Lindqvist or I Am Legend by Richard Matheson), possession, religious, anti-religious, gross-for-the-sake-of-being-gross, dinosaur erotica, and the list goes on and on and on.
Basically, if the cover or the title screams horror, I won’t touch the book. Entire publishing companies are overlooked on my part, some authors avoided. Yes, I judge books by their covers. Anyone who says they don’t are lying. And, for the most part, people seem to hate the term “literary fiction” or “literary horror,” but that’s the stuff I’m looking for if I’m looking for anything in the horror genre at all. The same goes for all genres, science fiction especially. Sorry, but it’s true.
LVP: In your opinion, what is the scariest or most terrifying thing you’ve ever written?
BAILEY: For fiction, it would be a tie between “White to Black” (since some of the fear involved is autobiographical), and Darkroom, a novelette that sort of works as an older sister to that story and hits similar nerves. For nonfiction, I recently finished Seven Minutes, a book about surviving a California wildfire that completely changed my world. The agent is currently shopping that one, and it’s a tear-jerker / page-burner (pun intended because fire can go fuck itself). It could be sold as fiction if the story didn’t really happen, but it happened. So, that’s perhaps the scariest story I’ve ever written, Seven Minutes, since it’s something real in this nonfiction world of ours. Horror fiction becomes less scary when something real (something bad) happens in its place.
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.
BAILEY: Our Children, Our Teachers used to be that beast, a novelette about the dire state of the education system, which is about a lockdown / active shooter situation at a school, involving children. I was originally going to co-write it as a novella with Jack Ketchum and we were going to call it Our Children, Our Futures, and we tossed around some ideas where it would go, but when his health fell the last time, he asked if we could collaborate on something else instead, a little later down the line. He urged me to finish the story solo as a novelette, though, told me it was something important that needed to be said, only that he couldn’t be the one to say it with me because I was the one with kids, “still a kid” myself. I didn’t want to write it, not alone. I also didn’t want to later write the book about the fire, but he convinced me to finish both. “Write the story about the fire,” he’d said. “It wants to be told.” Those were some of his last words to me. So, I guess the long answer is no, I’ve written the scariest, most disturbing things already.
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?
BAILEY: The only bleeding from my interest in horror is in the form of editing and book design. While I don’t read a lot of published horror fiction, I read and edit a lot of unpublished horror fiction. As a freelancer, I work with writers to slim down manuscripts, as well as offer book design services. On average, I probably edit two or three book-length manuscripts a month, and design five or six books annually. I do have a cat named Bram, which is short for “Bramble,” and could be a nod to Mr. Stoker.
LVP: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to try dabbling in horror writing for the first time?
BAILEY: Learn the art of self-editing. Attend a workshop or two or three (not online, unless you’ve gone to a few in person first) and learn how to slice and dice your own words until all that’s left on the page is what’s important. Avoid tropes. Be original. Listen to offered advice. Write what no one else is writing. Be your own voice, not a mash-up of others. Read outside the genre in which you want to write: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, whatever, as long as it’s good. However many words you want to write, first read at least a hundred times that amount; maybe a thousand times that amount… and either do it or don’t do it. Don’t just talk about doing it, or write online about the things you haven’t yet accomplished. And once you do write something you think is good, either throw it away or let it marinate in a drawer for six months before you ever touch it again. Then write something new. Rinse and repeat, until the drawer is full, and then go back to that first story. You’ll hate it. You’ll probably throw it away, or start slashing the thing apart with a red pen (hopefully after you’ve learned some self-editing tips and tricks). And, if you want to write a novel, write at least three before ever considering publishing one. You can always go back to fix the “drawered” manuscripts later, or permanently tuck them away, or let them burn when your house catches fire.
LVP: What would you like your legacy to be? Or alternatively, what should your survivors engrave on your tombstone?
BAILEY: Here lies Michael Bailey, professional liar / truth-teller (because, if you’re doing it right, they are one in the same), creator of originality (until copied). Note that prior to cremation (and later poured haphazardly into) this golden book / urn you are holding / observing (or have stolen), his body was found hollow and dry, and so what was found left of him after he died burned rather quickly, as he had first bled everything he had onto the page to tell his lies / truths. And please, feel free to open this unsealed container and breathe in the ashes herein contained, for they are stories made of stardust. And yes, this headstone is rather lengthy because it must contain all these words, lest an editor— (the rest is chiseled away, as if in anger, and unreadable)
LVP: Anything else you'd like to say or add? Any final thoughts?
BAILEY: Support creatives. Buy books. Read them. Review them.
~ Michael Bailey is a freelance writer, editor and book designer, and the recipient of over two dozen literary accolades, such as the Bram Stoker Award and Benjamin Franklin Award. His novels include Palindrome Hannah, Phoenix Rose, and Psychotropic Dragon, and he has published two short story and poetry collections, Scales and Petals, and Inkblots and Blood Spots. Edited anthologies include The Library of the Dead and about a dozen others. More at www.nettirw.com.
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)!