WYTCHWOOD HOLLOW and HUSK both share the same universe, a practice normally found in graphic novels. Was this technique intentionally carried over from comics, or was the idea to keep things unified for want of a ‘small town’ feel? Could you see yourself borrowing other techniques from comics?
Where I'm from in eastern Kentucky, it's common for multiple generations of families to never leave the town where they're born. It's appalling to them—the thought of abandoning the comforts of familiarity for the unknown—so they build these little insular micro-communities that consist purely of family members or very close friends (who often adopt honorary familial titles such as aunt this or uncle that, blurring the lines between blood and social bonds) and they all take care of one another. It's not unheard of for a clan of people with the same last name to own miles and miles of land, where every member of that group will one day build a house and start their own branch of the family. I was one of the few who chose to break away and see what lay beyond the holler, but that desire to be close to home never left me. To my heart, nothing could compare to the land that raised me, and I'll always long for the rolling hills, the lakes and rivers and caves, and the people with their strange turns of phrase. I created Ash Hill as a way to connect to my homeland, no matter where I am in the world or what might be going on in my life. In that way, I suppose I've sort of taken the idea of starting a family and carving out a holler of my own. A holler that exists only in my head. When I wrote comics, I never dabbled in the shared-universes of Marvel and DC characters. The only DC work I ever produced was for their Vertigo line, and it was a completely original short story, with my own characters and settings. Comics never felt like a space where I could set up a home. It always felt fleeting and temporary. Of the moment.
IN THE DARK is a gargantuan piece of work, a comic anthology spanning over twenty stories and three-hundred pages (and for readers: if you don’t have IN THE DARK on your shelf, unfuck that. It’s mandatory for any horror collection. Get it HERE). Did the workload burn you out, or did such a massive undertaking spark the notion of Volume Two?
It certainly wasn't the workload that burned me out. I enjoyed pouring myself into that book and puppet-mastering the whole thing. I was working with a group of my friends to create a book that none of the comic publishers would even consider. I was told time and again that anthologies didn't sell and that horror comics weren't in demand anymore. I was told that the idea would never sell to the casual comic reader who happened upon the book in a store. The idea was too big and it would cost too much to be a success. So I struck out on my own, against 'conventional wisdom' and all the money-making ideas, and simply did exactly what I wanted. A real four-color rebel. The whole feel of putting that book together and getting it out to the world was a thrill. The fact that the book earned me nominations for both the Eisner and the Harvey was a treat, as well. It was the shady business practices within the comics industry, the broken promises and outright lies, and the rabidly cannibalizing fandom that will keep the world from ever seeing a second volume. Comics is not the place for me. Still, that lone volume of work is something that will stand the test of time and always remind me of what I accomplished in the early days of my creative career. It makes me proud.
HUSK was one of my top novels of 2016, primarily for its emotional hit, and secondly for its horror. That’s a bullseye for me. As a reader, I enjoy a story with a beating heart, and remember Joe Hill once comparing ‘bad’ 80s slasher characters to “bowling pins for the killer”. Kevin from HUSK is definitely not that, and any shorts I’ve read from you walk that same tightrope. Going into prose, what was the importance of character first, ‘monster’ second? Or was it even intentional?
I honestly believe it's just the way I'm wired. I spend a lot of time thinking about people and their motivations. I turn situations over in my mind and consider all the ways a person could respond, emotionally and psychologically. And this is just in my everyday life, not in fiction. I am a a deeply emotional person, so it's only natural that my characters would reflect that in their own ways. I'm not a monster, despite what some educators and ex-lovers may tell you, so coming up with the monstrous aspects of my stories always requires quite a bit more flexing of the creative muscle. A monster is more of a catalyst for horror than the horror itself, in my world. It can get the ball of dread rolling, but it's ultimately the characters and their emotional and psychological responses that work for me. Love is terrifying. Loss is powerful and crippling. A monster can chew on your guts for a little while, but eventually you'll die and that pain will stop. Betrayal and heartbreak can haunt you forever, whittling you down until you're nothing more than exposed nerves and want of the end.
You have a talent for never short-changing characters you might not personally agree with ideologically. Those characters still read as all-too-human and three-dimensional, was this another deliberate act on your part?
That comes from my own tendency to force myself to almost empathize with terrible people. I lay in bed at night and wonder about the private thoughts and fond memories of famously-despised figures. What secret things make them smile? Did they play with the same toys as me? What is their favorite band? Did they watch cartoons as a kid, and which was their favorite? What's their favorite topping on a baked potato? I ask myself all these inconsequential questions and I'll guess at what the answers might be. In doing these sort of mental interviews, I start to connect with these people and that horrifies me. What sense is there in trying to love a mass murderer or a corrupt politician? Why I put myself through that sort of thing, I'll never understand, but the whole act makes me feel things I'm not comfortable feeling. I try to channel that into my writing, asking my readers to consider the more human aspects of the boogeymen. To me, that opens up a whole world of personal horror that lives beyond the page.
You’ve worked on such properties as CREEPY, DIABLO III, AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE, THE POWERPUFF GIRLS, and even SONIC THE HEDGEHOG — so, gun to head, what single property would you like to write a prose novel for?
I'd love to try my hand at a serious Scooby Doo novel. No joke. That was my favorite cartoon as a kid. I lived for the next episode. To be able to get into the minds of the gang and explore what makes Shaggy think he can talk to Scooby and why this group of kids constantly seeks out the most dangerous situations would be a blast. I think the tendency for the monsters in that world to always be human underneath also speaks to me and the kinds of stories I write. Can you imagine a deeply psychological Scooby Doo mystery?
2018 sees the release of WYTCHWOOD HOLLOW, what else can readers expect for the coming year?
I'm working on a non-fiction project for a big publisher right now. It's a historical book for a beloved 90s property. I can't say any more about that just yet. I have two short stories coming in anthologies from Crystal Lake this summer, one in WELCOME TO THE SHOW and another in LOST HIGHWAYS. I have my sights set on a short story collection for a Halloween release, which will include an expanded and revised version of HUSK, along with a bunch of new stuff. And I've just sold an anthology I created with another well-known author/editor friend of mine, but I don't expect that book to see the light of day until probably 2019 at the earliest.
HUSK is available HERE.