The following interview with Lee Thomas first appeared in PstD Volume 2. Contributing editor James K. Moran chatted about conventions, zombies, and queer horror with Thomas in 2011.
Lee Thomas knows monsters, whether they’re in the closet or out. The Austin author has been transfixed by monsters since he was a child watching Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. In one iconic scene, the monster turns from a doorway to face the viewer — the effect on Thomas was visceral. He wanted to write so he could recreate a similar shocking effect. Thomas wrote for fun while growing up near Seattle, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he tried publishing his work. A public relations consultant in New York City, he joined a science fiction writing class taught by Terry Bisson. Bisson encouraged him to submit his stories to prospective markets. The aspiring author sent out six pieces. Four were accepted. Thomas claims he had beginner’s luck.
Since then, Thomas has published dozens of short stories, novels, and YA books. He earned the Bram Stoker Award for his first novel, Stained (Wildside Press, 2004), and the Lambda Literary Award for In the Closet, Under the Bed (2009, also nominated for the Stoker. Closet is a startling mix of stories about gay men who, closeted or not, live lies, suffer through straight marriages, cruise online, and hook up in cafes. Thomas’s “monsters” are made of bits of detritus; they are white bees that appear when a protagonist is intoxicated; they are spurned loves from the past.
JKM: How would you describe your work to our readers?
LT: My work is supernatural horror that often tears apart the human condition. (And a few humans in the process. Ha!)
JKM: How did Toronto author Michael Rowe, who edited the Queer Fear series, come to write the afterword for your collection, In the Closet, Under the Bed?
LT: I met Michael at the 2005 World Horror Convention in New York. We got to chatting. I’d already read Queer Fear (an anthology of gay horror fiction). I think I’d read both of them (Queer Fear I and Queer Fear II) at that point and I just absolutely loved what he’d done with those anthologies. So there was a bit of intimidation the first time. But he’s the nicest guy you could want to meet and smart as can be. We ended up on a panel about gay/lesbian issues that turned out to be hugely attended. Both of us had commented that we thought it would be a few people in the room and we would know all of them and just end up gathered amongst ourselves. But [it] was standing-room only — we had people lined up along the walls.
JKM: What was the topic?
LT: Basically, just gay and lesbian issues in horror fiction. We went into a bit of history, what had been out there and what we were at, at that point. There were some people who were doing harder-edged horror with a queer bent to it but there weren’t a lot, and certainly there weren’t people looking at it the way I was intending to look at it.
JKM: Who are some of the writers you know, aside from Jack Ketchum and Michael Rowe?
LT: I was in a writing group in New York called Who Wants Cake? That group included Nicholas Kaufmann, Sarah Langan (who’s won several awards, she’s a brilliant writer), Stefan Petrucha, my co-writer on some young adult books, Dan Braun, [a] very fine short story writer, K. Z. Perry, who’s a very good writer but I don’t know if she’s still writing. After I left the group, David Wellington, [who] did Monster Island […] came in to take my place so I’ve actually workshopped with him sort of long distance on one or two pieces, and Rhodi Hawk, who wrote A Twisted Ladder.
JKM: You’ve mentioned that your productivity suffered in the past year or so. Was there any particular reason, such as touring or doing other types of work?
LT: I was the co-chair for the World Horror Convention 2011, a judge for the Shirley Jackson Awards, and I was in my first semester of school for my Masters Degree. All three required a lot of attention.
JKM: On that note, how did the World Horror Convention (WHC) 2011 go?
LT: It was an excellent weekend. We’ve heard nothing but good things, and we’re glad everyone had such a great time. Nate Southard and I worked our tails off, but it was worth it.
JKM: Can you please tell me some of the highlights?
LT: It’s all kind of a highlight. There were so many amazing authors in attendance, in addition to our Guests of Honour, and everyone was accessible and just out to have a good time. But I think the biggest kick for Nate and I was honouring Jack Ketchum with the Grandmaster Award. As with all conventions, the most enjoyable aspect is spending time with writers, editors, and publishers, some old and dear friends, and others like Steve Niles and Joe Hill — folks I’d never met before. More specifically, it’s always a buzz to chat with Peter Straub, whose body of work continues to inspire. And I was able to hang out with many of the members of my old writing group from New York, including Sarah Langan, Nicholas Kaufmann, and David Wellington.
JKM: Were there any surprises?
LT: Well we didn’t expect to hear that Bin Laden was brought down on the Sunday of the event. That was certainly a surprise. Otherwise, things went smoothly; maybe that in itself was the surprise!
JKM: How was the Shirley Jackson award judging? Was it hard to narrow down the list of nominees?
LT: The judging went well. I enjoyed being exposed to works that might have otherwise slipped under my radar, some of which were just amazing. And yes, it was hard to narrow down the list. Fortunately I didn’t have to do it alone. It was astounding to see the variety and volume of works that were submitted. Clearly, horror is a powerful force in publishing, even if the marketers choose to call it something else.
JKM: What was the most surprising piece of fiction that you read and what was it about?
LT: Two come to mind, and they have very similar titles. Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter was outstanding. Excellent characters. I had no idea where the story was taking me, and that alone was remarkable. After decades of reading horror, so many current pieces feel familiar to me. Also, his writing just keeps getting better. The other was Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, which was a Jamesian ghost story set in the Arctic. It proved to be a very effective and unnerving read.
JKM: As for your personal reading (non-contest judging reading, that is), what has impressed you in the past six months?
LT: Actually I haven’t done much reading in genre since I finished my stint with the Shirley Jackson Awards about four months back. I’ve mostly been reading for my Master’s program and doing some beta-reads on a few novels and novellas for friends. I can’t really talk about those, of course. Good stuff, though. Still, I have thoroughly enjoyed Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Roth’s American Pastoral. And I’ve just started reading Collins’ The Hunger Games, because I’m weak and had to give into the hype. It’s quite good so far. I am getting the itch for some new horror, so I’ll likely be diving into The Woman by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee or maybe The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon in the next few weeks.
JKM: In judging submissions, we sometimes spot certain themes or devices appearing in more than one work. In my recent judging experience, the sound of choir boys singing was an eerily repeated device. Were there any such particular, and unexpected, similarities in the Jackson award submissions?
LT: The only note of repetition I noticed was zombies. Every other book I read, it seemed, had zombies. Naturally there were some standout titles like The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell. But, as with all commercial trends, most of the stories were generic, derivative, and basically uninteresting. I understand the popularity of zombies from a cultural standpoint, but unless an author is really going someplace new with them, they make for dull reading.
JKM: I’d have to agree. It seems that the zombie genre has been overfed, although there are notable exceptions such as The Walking Dead show, which in many ways is superior to the graphic novel. What are your thoughts about this and other exceptions?
LT: I love The Walking Dead, or did until they ousted Frank Darabont. The entire first season was painted from his palette, and I can’t imagine anyone doing as fine a job, particularly when handcuffed by the AMC suits. The first season was amazing — great characters and a commitment to the visceral imagery that a viewer would expect from a zombie project. We’ll see how it holds up. Other Z flicks I’ve seen recently and enjoyed include Rammbock (from Germany), [Rec] 2 (from Spain), and The Horde (from France). I guess it’s about time for the U.S. to step up with another great Z flick, but it may be a while.
JKM: It seems like some of the best innovative horror, for lack of a better word, is coming out of France and Spain. Juan of the Dead looks promising as a horror-humour piece as well. And set in Cuba no less.
LT: I think you’re absolutely right in that much of the innovative work is coming from other countries. I’m not sure if it’s a difference in their overall aesthetic or if it has to do with less conservative film industries in those countries, but most of the really interesting horror is being imported.
JKM: What sort of zombie piece grabs your attention?
LT: My criteria for zombie stories are the same as any other story. A story with engaging characters that takes me someplace new. I also enjoy stories that explore deeper ideas, but it can work against the creator, as it has with George A. Romero’s recent films. He’s focused so heavily on “the message” that the work isn’t nearly as entertaining or frightening. It’s a tough balance. And quite frankly, the messages in zombie fiction tend to be incredibly limited, which is why the characters are so essential. We all know what the zombie landscape looks like by now. We all know how they behave, what they want, and what they represent. So I applaud any creator in film or fiction who can create characters and situations that genuinely shine.
JKM: Let’s get back to what you said about marketers not calling horror “horror.” What are marketers calling horror now?
LT: You’ll find horror across the board, from Romance to Crime. Often enough they’re just called thrillers these days.
JKM: Speaking of thrillers, let’s talk about your novel, The German, which is a mix of suspense and thriller with a horror element. The setting is a small U.S. town in 1944 during World War II, and a serial killer is stalking young boys. How have critics received it?
LT: So far the critical response to The German has been exceptional, from mainstream publications like Publishers Weekly to horror-focused mags like Rue Morgue. I’ve seen more than a dozen reviews, and I have yet to see anything less than a glowing notice. It’s reassuring for me to see a book that is not exactly traditional in the way it mixes genres receiving such high praise. And as a side note, the work of Jack Ketchum was a major influence on the book thematically. I was floored when Ketchum quoted from the novel on his social media pages and called the book riveting. That’s pretty amazing, I think.
JKM: The German is quite a change from your young adult work, I presume. I haven’t actually read the YA work.
LT: The young adult work was certainly a different beast. . . In The German, particularly, there are certainly horrific scenes, there’s a suggestion of the supernatural, though maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I just find the real world’s face is very well drawn, I see that as far more frightening than anything that’s coming out of the supernatural. I actually hit that idea of objectification of humanity on every level I could think of in this book — everything from the Nazis, serial killers, the idea of the objectification of the victim to schoolyard bullies — just to make it very clear that it goes across culture, it goes across age groups, and it does a lot of damage. It [objectification] is an odd thing — it should be a very obvious and simple thing to people and for some reason it’s not. They don’t understand that the process of objectification is the first step towards hatred and violence and they go “Lighten up; it’s just name-calling.” Yeah, at what point does it stop, though?
JKM: What scares the hell out of Lee Thomas these days? What compels you to commit something to print?
LT: People remain the scariest thing to me (and being a person, I’m included in that). As a species we have the capacity to do amazing things, but our default setting seems to be “asshole.” I like to take various things I’ve seen in practice — cruelty, objectification, deceit, hate — and maybe figure out why we seem so eager to destroy ourselves and others. By using supernatural horror and keeping most of it on a metaphorical level, I can avoid sounding preachy. I don’t know [how] to narrow it down into specifics unless it’s a psycho coming at me with a hammer. I’ll tell you who does it the best in my mind is Jack Ketchum because he gets into the human mind and the twisted human mind like nobody’s business and you see how these characters get to the point they’re at, why they’re taking the actions they’re taking. It’s so honest. Yeah, that scares the hell out of me. And he does that brilliantly.
JKM: Any recommendations? I haven’t had a chance to read Ketchum yet except for short stories.
LT: I would definitely recommend Red and The Girl Next Door — you really have to have nerves of steel for that one. I would say those two are a very good start. Red is just beautiful, beautiful work. If you own a dog, it will be very difficult for you. If you liked the 1970s exploitation kind of films, things like Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes, or something like that, if you like that sort of vibe, then Off Season.
James K. Moran’s stories and poetry have appeared in various Canadian and U.S. publications, including Icarus and Postscripts to Darkness 3. Moran’s debut horror novel, Town & Train, is forthcoming this fall from Lethe Press.