Winter Chills with Mike Arnzen

Today, as the holidays near closer and the winter weather bears down on us, we are lucky to get a quick chat with Michael A. Arnzen. From fiction to non, humorous to down-right mucusy, Arnzen has done it all and has the awards to prove his success in it. As a member of the Seton Hill University’s faculty, he helps guide some of the newest creative minds in horror in the Writing Popular Fiction program.

NHRS: You have a section of your website that is about the instances of the “uncanny,” or “unheimlich,” in popular culture. What are your thoughts on Freud’s theory of the “uncanny” and its relationship to Horror fiction?

MA: Since horror is the genre most associated with fear, it’s a natural that its authors and film directors would draw inspiration from the field of psychology.  (There would be no Psycho without psychology!)  Whether concerned with the twisted motives of gritty serial killers or the nightmare creatures of the supernatural, horror stories not only try to prick the “fight vs. flight” response of their readers, but also go exploring “the dark side” of the mind for material.

The “uncanny” is a part of that realm of fear.  Only it’s less about abject dread and more about the frisson one feels when caught off-guard — it’s that surprising recognition we feel dawning on us, akin to déjà vu, that strange sense of “I have been here before” or that “life is but a dream.”  Freud was the first to contemplate what it is that accounts for these disturbing feelings.  In fiction, he suggests the “strangely familiar” is present not only in gothic tales of haunting, but also appears in the form of a whole series of icons that we find even in the present day in the horror genre: inanimate objects that move on their own accord, dolls that look back at you or speak with a human voice, dismembered limbs or possessed beings that seem to have minds of their own, the living dead, bizarre ominous symbols (666) that seem to be harbingers of doom, and so forth.  He ultimately argues that these are all manifestations of secret childhood wishes we repressed, which shockingly “return” to us as adults with such intensity that we believe — if only for a moment — that our primitive instincts were right all along and that the reasonable, civilized world of adulthood has really nothing more than a charade, a fiction.

Horror stories conjure those disturbing feelings and represent the “secret wishes” of characters in endlessly fascinating ways.  One can study these stories for what they tell us not only about our animal or primitive beliefs, but also our social belief systems.  This is what makes the uncanny a rich form of literary criticism, despite the way Freud’s work otherwise seems to serve some of the more problematic aspects of his psychoanalytical theories about castration anxiety Oedipal complex.

Nowadays, a possessed doll isn’t as scary as it used to be.  Yet if told (or shown) right, it can still “getcha” when you least expect it.  Or the doll has become something else:  an android, an artificial intelligence, a computer.  It’s all the same principle.  That’s because we all still dream, we all still are a little uncertain about the universe, and we’re never as smart or in control as we think we are.  In fact, that’s probably how I ultimately define horror literature:  as the you’re not so smart as you thought you were, are you? genre.  It bursts the bubbles of mankind, especially when it comes to our pretenses toward mastery over various domains.  Perhaps this sounds like anti-intellectualism at work, but it’s the exact opposite.  It questions and challenges what we take for granted.  I love that edge of horror fiction, and I think the humorous audacity of it all has a lot to do with this.

Maybe I’m a little obsessed with it, but I see the same uncanny tropes from horror fiction evident everywhere in popular culture, particularly in advertising.  To me, the Pillsbury Doughboy might as well be a Chucky doll.  To me, the Doublemint Twins are doppelgangers. The Michelin Man is a monster.  I am enthralled by the way the uncanny is used to fetishize commodities and sell us things we otherwise wouldn’t see a need to buy.  I explored these ideas in my doctoral dissertation, which I’m currently revising into an academic book called The Popular Uncanny, which hopefully will be available from Guide Dog Books in 2011.  For now, folks can visit my website to read my continuing notebook on the subject.

NHRS: As one of the teachers and mentors of the Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction Program, what are some of the common obstacles up-and-coming Horror writers seem to face most you try to help them with?

MA: It’s never passion or skill.  Those things are easy to acquire, with energy and practice.  The biggest hurdle to face is the lack of reading experience.  Even avid readers of horror fiction usually haven’t reached back far enough (into not only the “classics” but also the various periods of literature, like French Decadence or the Pulps) or read widely enough (outside of their pet subgenres, like, say vampire stories) to really know what’s already been done to death, or what fans will have seen elsewhere before.  Sometimes this is due to their age and their circumstance

— most of the people I teach fall between 25-35 years old, with a Bachelor’s degree in English still stuffed into their back pocket.  While an English diploma is a very strong start for a writer, what that means is that they have studied only general periods of literature, not genre fiction or its peculiar history in any real depth.  Many see genre as an escape from the less entertaining reads (or the literary constraints of creative writing programs) they had to endure as undergrads, so when they join us in the Writing Popular Fiction graduate program at Seton Hill, they are a bit too eager to toss everything they learned out the window. What they forget is that their BA taught them certain general skills that they can now apply through an independent study of genre.   Reading deeply and doing a modicum of research about the genre is the best thing you can do to build up your repertoire of writing strategies and your familiarity with what an awful lot of readers out there already know.  Too many new writers think too narrowly and don’t have the foresight to realize just how much reading things you normally wouldn’t read can help you be a better writer.  Even if you write about axe-wielding maniac clowns, your writing will improve. Even the most splattery writers I know are hyper-intelligent, well-read writers.  It’s not all juvenilia, even if it appears that way on the surface.  Being associated with an over-the-top genre gives these writers an awful lot of liberties and leeway for creative play.

NHRS: You are well known for the humorous aspects of your fiction. What are your thoughts on the balance of humor and terror in Horror fiction, including the Humorous Horror sub-genre?

MA: Hard question.  It really comes down to having a sardonic worldview, I think.  Irony is everything in all those good, Poe-like stories with twist endings.  I admire those and try to write them.  But sometimes there’s just goofiness to terror; it’s hard to watch a Peter Lorre or Vincent Price movie and not laugh at their over-the-top performance.  So beyond my sardonic worldview, there’s that element to it, too:  the excess.  Horror is often about excessive desires, excessive body counts, excessive quarts of blood curtaining down to the cobblestone.  Fear is generated by our anticipation of what more can there be and how far will things really go? Humor plays in the same playground.  Humorous horror ultimately aims at having its readers die laughing, I guess.  But this is something so instinctive to me as a reader and a writer, and something so physically experienced at times that I can’t really analyze it very much.  I simply like to get a reaction out of readers, and myself, whenever I write.  And as a horror fan, I simply enjoy laughing, gagging, and chortling with wicked glee.  It’s all clownery, even if the facepaint is black. You should see me in a movie theater.  I’m usually the only one cackling from somewhere in the back row, while everyone else is cowering and biting their nails.

NHRS: I was once told that the average reading level of most popular fiction readers is around the 8th grade. Do you think that this idea has caused people not only think less of the literary merit of genre fiction, but also influences the writers of genre fiction to hold back artistic expression?

MA: I used to worry about these kinds of things, but, nah, not anymore.  Emotionally, we’re all 8th graders when we listen to storytellers, enthralled by their imaginations and skills, no matter what age or literacy level we are.  Fantasy genre fiction (which includes science fiction and horror) taps into our childhood senses of wonder and awe and dread.  There’s nothing illiterate about that.  Some books are more challenging than others — there’s a whole spectrum of “literariness” in any one genre, and different factions of audience claim writers for their own.  Yesterday’s pop culture is on today’s American Lit syllabus.  And even within highbrow literature, there’s a similar sense of childish fawning for authorial masters and a fandom that happens.  This “hero worship” is seen as gullibility when fans of mass media succumb to it; and maybe a skepticism of mass media is a good thing, since it wields so much authority over the masses that it could function in a way akin to propaganda.  But the literati also need to hold a mirror up to themselves once in awhile.  They’re no different than fans; go to a reading by a famous “literary” writer or watch a Shakespeare play and check out the audience — you’ll see what I mean.

But because horror fiction explores the taboo, it’s always somewhere in R-rated territory.  It taps into that thrill that an 8th grader gets when they sneak into a movie theater underage.  That thrill of “getting away with it” or “going somewhere you’re not supposed to go” is precisely the perverse sort of thrill that the genre always harbors, no matter how juvenile or adult it might seem.  Nothing wrong with that, but that’s precisely why the genre is socially treated as a shameful indulgence.

NHRS: How would you define the literary evolution of Horror fiction since the rise of the Gothic novel?

MA: Answering this question would be like taking an essay exam in college, so I’ll not say much.  I would just argue that “the more things change the more they stay the same.”  But one thing that has radically influenced the genre since the Gothic novel is technology.  We no longer sit in front of crackling fireplaces, reading horror books in quivering solitude.  The zombies now grown at us through our computer speakers and clutch at us from screens in 3D.  These changes in technology change the shape of the way stories are told, but the best of them exploit the fear we have of technological change as well, often in a very subtle way.

NHRS: You are also known for your poetical works. Genre poetry is not often talked about, and possible less known to exist. Do you think that poetry could be force in changing the perception of Horror and its literary merit?

MA: I just like poetry because it allows me to explore horror in ways that narrative forms do not.  While the number of stories to be told are infinite, the overall shape of fiction remains pretty much the same.  This is why I also love books that take a poetic approach to the form and structure of the story (like, say, Danielewski’s House of Doors).  To me, the experiment is the good stuff, and writing poetry lets me experiment with language in a way that breaks me out of habitual ways of thinking.  The problem is that there’s a degree of narcissism involved in that, because the second you label something as “poetry” you lose an audience.  People — unfairly — associate too many other things with poetry to really want to read it (from the banality of Hallmark cards to the difficulty of understanding impenetrable symbols).  But whenever I do a live reading, I read poetry, and everyone gets it.  My poetry still speaks to a genre audience, so there’s that.  Whether it changes anyone’s mind about literary merit, I’ll never know.  But as the internet rises as a major vehicle for horror entertainment, we’re seeing shorter and more experimental formats (like the “one minute story” videos on the Weird Tales website) akin to poetry.  And my open-mindedness about this stuff and my practice at readings made me flexible enough to create a music cd a few years ago that I’m pretty proud of, called Audiovile.  It’s all a horror playground.  I try not to let things like formats trip me up…and I try to exploit the media for all the terror it’s got.

NHRS: If there was one thing you could tell everyone about Horror fiction that they may not know, what would it be?

MA: Don’t underestimate the unknown.  Too many people think horror fiction is the same thing as horror cinema, where it’s all jarring noises and flickers of light in the darkness playing over bucketloads of blood.  It can be like that, but that’s often just masking something far deeper.  When horror fiction explores the unknown well, it’s the anti-thesis of a splatter movie — in fact, it’s quite unfilmable, ultimately…it’s what happens in the reader’s mind that makes this stuff work its magic.

Horror’s history in telling “cautionary” tales is important to recognize, too.  These stories help us manage our anxieties and sometimes warn us about things we really ought to be concerned with, if only on a symbolic level.  Rules, laws, and other instrumental forms of “caution” will always fail to manage the human creature.   Horror stories serve a valuable function in these ways.  It’s a world without horror literature, or worse, a world without readers, that we ought to be genuinely afraid of.

Oh, and for the literati:  if you’re looking for a starting point for just how literary horror can be, go read Stephen King’s Misery.  It’s probably the best work of American metafiction ever written. Then go exploring Lovecraft.  After that, start digging around in the underground…you’ll be surprised what you stumble upon.

*          *          *

Michael A. Arnzen holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon, and is Division Chair of the Humanities at Seton Hill University, where he teaches in the country’s only MFA program dedicated to Writing Popular Fiction.  His often funny, always disturbing fiction has won four Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association, including an award for his fiction collection, Proverbs for Monsters (Dark Regions Press, 2007).  His upcoming books include Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction (co-edited for Headline Books, 2011) and The Popular Uncanny (Guide Dog Books, 2011). He posts new work often at

You can also follow him on Twitter: @MikeArnzen

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