October Bizarre Horror Issue

The Underground Author Series
Interview #7:
Michael A. Arnzen

We are pleased to present you with this exclusive interview from the author of 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories, due April, 2004. Turn on the lights, grab a crucifix, and read on...

Q: You are quite prolific with both fiction and poetry. Do you have a favorite between the two? Is there any difference between creating verse and prose?

A: I'm bitextual. I write both ways.

But seriously: I'm just a lover of language. I enjoy both approaches because they're different pathways that lead into the same dark forest of the imagination. Writing is a way of discovering things (like, just how sick I really can be) and I enjoy the expedition, no matter what route I take. Poetry is something of an under-appreciated and disreputable art lately, but its method frees me to explore ideas because it has no hard-set rules—readers don't know what to expect of it anymore. And neither do I as I write—it's like building a magic puzzle box or something. Even in highly structured, formal verse. The payoffs of poetry writing are different than storytelling, but not any lesser or greater—just different. For me, storytelling's pleasure lies is in the tricks of plot and the insights into character. By writing fiction, I can inquire into why people commit the evil that men do. And I can think more cinematically, not just capturing an image but setting it into motion. Poetry can get away with being less interested in person and more interested in abstract phenomena. Regardless, in both, I find surprises as I go. That's the fun part. And I've found that most of my readers are willing to go with me there, either way.

Q: The Gorelets site managed to establish you as a cutting edge author by featuring PDA material when few people even knew what PDAs were. What has been the response to Gorelets?

A: The response was much stronger than I expected, but I think publishing still has far to go before e-books and handheld computers are really used to their fullest capacity. It starts with realizing that the e-book format isn't better or worse—it's just different than the printed book and requires a different way of reading. It requires that readers change their habits of reading; and maybe writers also could take the form of the medium into account.

Let me explain: I started Gorelets as a challenge to myself (to write at least one good new poem a week) and a way to address the lack of poetry I was seeing in the burgeoning e-book market. (Oh, okay—just the subversive thought of some business type reading a twisted poem during a board meeting sort of appealled to me, too). One of the reasons e-books haven't taken off is that they're a little cumbersome to read on a handheld computer or a cell phone. But not poems! They can be short and sweet. But no one, really, seemed to be writing them from what I could tell. So Gorelets began—little horror poems, written to fit the small screens of Portable Digital Assistants. The response was pretty strong because people with these devices (Palm Pilots, Clie's, etc.) didn't have much cool content to download beyond business and technology newspapers, so I was providing something unique for them on a "subscription" basis. Donations paid for everything; the site got more media coverage than I expected. And I generated a book's worth of poems that sold to Fairwood Press—http://www.fairwoodpress.com—who is releasing it around Halloween. (Not to privilege one medium over the other, Double Dragon Publishing—http://www.double-dragon-ebooks.com—will release an e-book version with a bonus section of twenty-one poems at the same time, too). I like to think that there's an audience out there for horror and even horror poetry that just isn't being reached by traditional publishing and I'm exploring new media as a way to get there.

Q: Many people claim that it is the "violence in media" which has spawned the seemingly desensitized public. Is this true? Do you feel that readers are numbed to the horror genre?

A: No. When I saw the film 28 DAYS LATER about, well, 28 days ago, the audience in the theater was scared shitless. They also harbored a silent respect of the movie—usually it's all a silly spectacle for the theatergoers, but 28 DAYS LATER really held their rapt attention. I take that as a positive sign of not only the capacity of the horror genre to address our fears and desires through violence, but also as a positive sign that humanity—even in jaded teen culture—is still alert and sensitive to life.

If the public was desensitized, then terrorism wouldn't have the hold it does over so many Americans. I don't think it's true that the public is jaded; I think we have the attitude that we don't want to >look< scared. That makes you vulnerable. Uncool.
Besides, violence in the media is sometimes more about the medium itself as an art form—the way that lights flash out of a gun barrel, the way bloodspatter artistically Pollocks on the wall behind the victim...these are what we marvel at, abstractly, rather than simply the act that happens in the narrative. The tragic loss of life is sometimes placed secondary to other concerns. Or sometimes it's impact is underscored by it. Art can do that. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing so. It allows us to see death in a new way. If any representation of violence is itself inherently bad, then let's ban all photography, network news, and, hell, America's Funniest Pets.

Q: Does surrealism—or the unexplainable—have a place in horror? Or are readers only moved by tangible, real-world terrors?

A: It's all always already surrealism, isn't it? Life is but a dream. But to the point: Horror—the genre of dark fantasy—has the capacity to be the most avant garde of the popular genres, in my opinion. The connection is the psychology of the nightmare. We dream about fish swimming in the air. Seems normal in a dream. When we encounter it in art—while awake—we call it "surreal." It's funny. Uncanny. Marvelous. But then give that air fish teeth and have it swimming toward a human on a hook and suddenly you've got a horror story. The momentary confusion between reality and fantasy—felt as something uncanny—really gives this stuff its impact. It's all about the unexpected. And, like surrealism in the arts, horror tends to slap us in the face and wake us up out of our habitual ways of seeing the world.

Q: One of the remarkable aspects of your writing is the unyielding stream of untapped concepts. Where do you draw your inspiration?

A: I'm deathly afraid of being boring. I'm afraid of writing something that's been done already to death. The anxiety of influence haunts me, so, likewise, I'm always striving to do something new. Besides, I only respect writers who are original and I strive to be one worthy of a reader's respect.

Reading inspires me a lot. And by "reading," I include films, music, and TV.
Beyond that, the ideas come from everyday life, more often than not. I always have my radar on, pinging reality for the unreal. I look for things to twist as I make my way through the day; words to play with; social habits that I can call attention to. I'm always seeking to pull the rug out from people who take themselves too seriously and I love to make them land on their chin. And I like readers to feel like "anything can happen" so when I'm planning to write, I constantly ask "What if anything could?"

Q: It seems uncommon to have a horror author entrenched in the world of academia. How are you received by your peers? By your students?

A: I'm very lucky to be working in a liberal arts college that houses a program in writing >popular< fiction. It's a dream job. Most of my peers understand that what I'm doing is at once educational and important, so most respect it—usually from a comfortable distance. But I always encounter a little bit of academic snobbery here and there—I think that would happen no matter what I did in academia. Likewise, there's a smattering of suspicion among fiction writers, too, who wonder what on earth an "academic" is doing writing horror stories... he can't possibly be authentic, they suspect, because he's not out there wrestling with his muse full time. Even some students harbor the old "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" mentality. But I only bump into these biases occasionally and I find them laughable, really. The fact is, "those who can teach, teach." Regardless, ultimately, I get respect from students and colleagues for being both a widely published, award-winning author and a well-published literary critic who can also teach without being boring. I'm in the right place, across the board, and I'm thriving.

Q: There are rumors afoot about Mike Arnzen, the rocker. I can only imagine what your songs would be about! Care to comment?

A: Charles Manson was asked this same question by Tom Brokaw once. Manson said, "Yeah, I do it. I do it. But the way I do it, ain't the same way you guys do it. And the way I do it scares you guys."

The way I play bass is pretty scary, too—like a percussive instrument more than a guitar. Scary, because I'm quite terrible at it. I can't really read music; I have no formal training at all; I'm virtually tone deaf. I just like to bang on the thing and make loud noises. But I did play in two bands—once in the Army, and once in grad school—as a means toward escaping my general suffering. Some of the sloppiest fun I've ever had. I still play around with the guitar from time to time, but NEVER in front of an audience. It's just a method of woolgathering for me. Maybe it supports my poetry writing, I don't know.

It's ironic that you bring this up. Rock-and-roll was a recurring motif in all the talk about horror writing at a recent conference I attended in Pittsburgh (called Confluence). I saw Lawrence Connolly do a one-man performance called "Songs of the Horror Writer" equipped with nothing but a guitar and a microphone. He sang songs about Lizzie Borden and insects and crimes of passion...and everybody loved it. It was a hilarious subversion of the con's filk programming. Later at that conference, I sat on a panel for "Horror in the 21st Century" with Lawrence and David Hartwell. David—a senior editor at TOR and long-time scholar of the genre—was very down on horror, claiming over and over again how dead it was. He articulated how the market has bottomed out and everyone in the room seemed depressed as hell by it all—which was pretty much the truth. But in an effort of optimism, I suggested that horror was the rock-and-roll of literature, and that it just comes in and goes out of fashion, along with the latest taboos. David sang "The Day the Music Died" in response, ending the panel on a bittersweet note. Afterwards, I realized that I should have sang Neil Young in response ("My My, Hey Hey"). Or maybe just classic Ozzy.

Q: I’m living in a box. Somebody stops by daily to shove water and scraps of food in through a crack. Eventually they cram a book in for me to read by the marginal light provided by said crack. What book should it be?

A: Houdini On Magic by Harry Houdini might help. But if that's not available, then maybe something like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. It captures nature so well that you wouldn't need to go outside of your box to touch it. Dillard's language could make the blind see. The way she contemplates the meaning of life and death is profound and spellbinding. You might think that a book like Tinker Creek isn't a horror story, but it does contain one of the best gross-out passage ever written—about a frog whose body has been eaten from the inside-out. There's a lot of grotesque description. No stylist I've read has more poetic power of Dillard.

Q: Where can readers find your work?

A: I'm all over the map—from mass market anthologies on the shelves at Barnes and Noble to small garage mimeograph publications. It's hard to track me down, but I try to facilitate the hunt for my work on my website, http://gorelets.com. Shocklines.com is another good site for acquiring the books and magazines I appear in. And I've got a number of e-books available at http://fictionwise.com.

Generally speaking, readers can expect tons of poetry short-term, and more long fiction, long term. By the end of summer, my long-awaited collection, Freakcidents: A Surrealist Sideshow, should be out from DarkVesper Publishing. It's a book I'm really proud of and I'm hoping others will see why. Then in the fall comes an e-book full of weird poems about sports—aptly titled Sportuary—published by CyberPulp Digital. That'll be exclusively in e-book form. And then there's Gorelets: Unpleasant Poetry, which I already mentioned. That'll be out in a neat collectable little chapbook by Fairwood Press (and in e-book form from Double Dragon) around Halloween.
I've also just started putting up some interesting things for sale on a section of my website called The Sickolodeon! Open 24 hours at http://www.gorelets.com

Q: Can we look forward to any forthcoming projects?

A: I've been on a poetry and short-short kick for a year and a half, and I have some plans for releasing some new material exclusively on my website for The Sickolodeon (mostly multimedia pieces), but I'm beginning to turn my focus back toward longer fiction. I just wrapped up a collection of one hundred short-shorts called 100 Jolts which is making the rounds with new publishers. While I market that, I'm putting together an as-of-now untitled horror novella that will be released in a collectable chapbook next Winter from Dark Animus in Australia and I'm still working on a twisted kidnapping novel called Hoarder which I hope to finish before too long and try to get into the dead mass market. If that market is dead, well, it's coming back as one helluva zombie, that's all I know.

Click the following links for two stories from Mike's forthcoming collection, 100 JOLTS!
-A Donation
-Mustachio Moon

Discuss this interview at The Dream People's Forum

I need to register
I'm already a member