Interviewed by Phillip Englund
One of our favorite authors is back in the spotlight again, and this time, he gets deep into the gritty with Phillip. So deep, you won’t even care about the nitty.
PE: I have to say, “Caroline” turned out to be one of the most damn depressing stories we’ve ever had submitted, and yet it completely blew us away. What do you think it is that attracts you as a writer (and us as readers) to such bleak material? Why do we like to be unnerved and disturbed?
AR: Yeah, I was definitely going for the emotional gut punch with this one. As for what attracts me to bleak material, it’s hard to say, really. I mean, it can be easy to provoke a visceral response from readers just by grossing them out, but that’s kind of a cheap shot. That’s not to say I won’t stoop to that level, and gladly, from time to time. I think every horror writer, though, wants to deliver something that hits the reader on an emotional level not just activate his or her gag reflex. I think those who like horror, myself included, kind of dig the adrenaline rush of being unnerved. I certainly look for that in the horror I read.
PE: How much are you looking to unnerve your readers, though? I’m remembering reading Jack Williamson’s horrifying sci-fi story “With Folded Hands” when I was a teenager. Not a drop of blood was spilled in that piece, and yet its sheer, overwhelming hopelessness rattled me so badly that I haven’t dared go back to it since–nor have I ever forgotten it. In your mind, are works that can do that to a person the pinnacle of what horror fiction should be, or do they take things a bit too far?
AR: Good question, and my only answer is just enough. The real question, though, is how much is enough? Unfortunately, you’ll know the answer to that one. Readers have different tolerance levels for unnerving, disturbing horror (this applies to editors too). What is gratuitous to some is acceptable, even preferable to others. So, I would say the goal of a good horror story is to disturb as many readers as possible without crossing their personal horror thresholds. It’s a tall order, to be sure.
PE: So what was the genesis of “Caroline?” Did the concept of undead rehabilitation come first, or were you just stuck near a particularly irritating child one day and thinking: You know what I wish would happen to that kid…?
AR: This is another story that started out as a flash fiction exercise (I have a lot of those, actually). It didn’t work at a 1,000 words, but I liked the concept and the ending so much that I went ahead and expanded it to its current form. The initial prompt for the story was a picture, I don’t even remember from where, of a zombie dad opening his arms to embracing a little girl. The first thought that popped into my head at seeing that was, “Okay, how would that actually work?” That thought was followed by two words that probably shouldn’t go together: zombie rehab.
PE: I think one of the most impressive things about your short stories is their limited scope, quite possibly a result of all the flash fiction you write. The entirety of “Paper Cut” took place in the confines of a motel room, for example, and now we have this. While zombie fiction in general tends toward a sweeping post-apocalyptic grandiosity by its very nature, “Caroline” is this amazingly compact little family tragedy instead. It’s truly effective how much is only hinted at, or left completely unanswered–from the level of prevalence of the undead in the world that they’re living in, to the circumstances behind David’s unfortunate condition, to the exact nature of the Rehabilitation Agency. So how does one master the art of giving just enough world-building detail that it keeps the reader oriented while still maintaining a narrow focus?
AR: It’s funny that you mention flash fiction because both stories I’ve published with Red Sun started out as flash fiction pieces. I do think the flash fiction has taught me to get details across as efficiently as possible, and, more importantly, which details I need to give to the reader and which I can probably get away with leaving out. I think a lot of flash fiction fails (mine included) because the author feels compelled to give more detail. It can be easy to fill up 500 words with setting and character description without a lot actually happening. One trick is to keep your setting confined and the number of characters minimal. My most successful flash fiction, i.e., the stories I’ve actually published, generally works with this narrow scope, so that even if I do feel the need to give more description, there’s just less to describe, leaving me more room to tell the story.
The lessons I’ve learned in flash fiction certainly carry over to my longer works, and I still try to maintain a fairly minimalist approach with a lot of details. That’s a stylistic choice, of course, and it’s not one everyone is going to appreciate.
PE: Zombies are (allegedly) massively overdone. And yet this is a piece which turns that to an advantage, playing with and utilizing genre expectations in order to create something new. Some part of me wonders if I would love this story quite as much had I not loved George Romero’s films and other fictitious works about the undead first. Do you think that one of the keys to originality is–counter intuitive as it may seem–embracing and conversing with what’s come before?
AR: Absolutely. I’m also a big fan of zombies, and all the classic monsters, really. The trick to getting those stories published in a world that’s absolutely saturated with them is to take them in a new direction or add some kind of twist that makes them different. In order to do that, in order to avoid treading old ground, you have to be intimately familiar with what’s come before. So, yeah, I’ve read a lot of zombie fiction.
PE: At no point in “Caroline” do you actually say “zombie,” which feels like a very deliberate decision on your part. Is the avoidance of that word a reflection of Barbara’s mindset, clinging to the hope that David’s “condition” might get better? Or is it because the text speaks for itself well enough that it simply isn’t needed?
AR: Caught that, did you? Yeah, it was deliberate, and the reason for it is a little column A and a little column B. Yes, Barbara is actively avoiding that word because she doesn’t want to believe that’s what her husband has become. And, yes, I think it’s pretty easy for any reader with even a passing familiarity with the horror genre to tell that I am absolutely, positively talking about zombies without me having to say it.
PE: Something just struck me. Did you name your main character Barbara as an intentional nod to Night of the Living Dead? Please say yes.
AR: Of course I did.
PE: Any chance of a “Caroline” spinoff centered on the workings of the Rehabilitation Agency? Or is that something better left for readers to flesh out in their imaginations?
AR: I’ve given that some thought, actually. I always thought it would be fun to write a story/novel from the viewpoint of an employee at one of the zombie rehabilitation centers. I’ve actually got a zombie novel in the works, and it’s entirely possible this concept could work its way into the story.
PE: Are there any further aspects of your story you’d like to talk about?
AR: I initially had two endings for the story written out. The first was a happy ending, where everything works out for the family, David gets better, and so on. It was kind of a happy sucker punch, in that the reader would be expecting something horrible, and it would all turn out okay. Then, of course, I had the ending you’ve published. I brought both endings to my wife, and asked her what she thought. Her response was surprising. She’s not really into horror, but she thought the darker ending was just stronger, more powerful, and more befitting to the tragic tale I had already setup. So there you go. It’s all her fault.
PE: Finally, what is it which draws you personally to horror as a genre? You sure seem to be having a great deal of fun with it.
AR: I like being scared, unnerved, disturbed. It’s really that simple. I just love a book or movie that can actually make me a little hesitant to turn off the light when I go to bed. I think that’s the mark of good horror–it sticks with you long after the initial exposure.
PE: Thank you, Aeryn. And one post-final bonus question, just because I can’t help myself after that last answer: what’s your favorite horror book and your favorite horror movie (or at least the ones you think are most effective), and why? Zombie or otherwise.
AR: I’m gonna cheat with my book answer and say Skeleton Crew by Stephen King. Yeah, I know it’s an anthology of short stores, but, man, there are some blood-chillers in there. “The Mist,” The Jaunt,” “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut,” and “Gramma,” to name a few, still scare the shit out of me.
As for movies, I thought The Conjuring was an incredibly effective horror movie, one of the most disturbing I’ve seen in a long time. The reason for that, in my opinion, is the film really gives you a likable set of characters and lets you get to know them. Then, when all the bad, creepy stuff starts goes down, you’re invested in what happens to these people you’ve come to like, and that just ups the horror factor for me.