Today I am interviewing Richard Thomas, author of the new science-fiction, fantasy, and horror short-story collection, Spontaneous Human Combustion.
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DJ: Hi Richard! Thanks for stopping by to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Richard Thomas: Sure! Thanks for having me. I’ve been writing for about 14 years now, with three novels, three collection, over 170 stories published (including alongside Stephen King four times now). I also have edited four anthologies, and ran Gamut magazine and Dark House Press. So, I’m not just an author, but an editor, teacher, and past publisher. I write dark fiction, but more and more these days, with some hope, not entirely bleak. I write hybrid fiction, often maximalist, with heavy setting, across quite a few genres—fantasy, science fiction, and horror, as you mentioned— as as well as neo-noir, thrillers, Southern gothic, new-weird, magical realism, transgressive, and literary fiction.
DJ: What is Spontaneous Human Combustion about?
Richard: Great question. It’s my fourth collection of stories, covering that last five years or so, and I think some of my best work to date. It’s not so much about spontaneous human COMBUSTION (bursting into flames) although there are some of those elements in the collection. It’s about spontaneous HUMAN combustion—the combustion of human elements, exploring the duality in human nature, the secrets and monsters we hold inside ourselves, and the potential to either lean into the darkness (“Yes, I WOULD like to live deliciously!”) or to push back against evil, and do the right thing. The image on the cover of the book shows a woman’s face, a mask really, breaking apart to reveal a ravenous wolf underneath. So, these are dark stories, but not without hope. Most story either has a “hopepunk” vibe or there is justice/vengeance at the end. And sometimes, yeah, the darkness wins. There is that, too. But I’ve been working hard the last few years to put LOVE at the center of my dark stories, and not DEATH. So that had gotten me to some different places, more optimistic.
DJ: What were some of the inspirations behind Spontaneous Human Combustion?
Richard: Oh, man, so many. Where to even start? I guess I can say a few things. The work of A24 Films. They’ve put out some really edgy work in the last 10 years, and that has been a big influence on my writing—Hereditary, The Witch, Under the Skin, Enemy, The Green Knight, Ex Machina, and many others. I’d also say that Black Mirror, and other anthology shows like Tales From the Loop, have also informed my work. There are stories in here that were directly influenced by certain authors as well. Of course Stephen King, as I’ve read more of his work than anyone else (stories like “Nodus Tollens” and “Saudade”) but also Stephen Graham Jones, Brian Evenson (especially The Warren), A.C. Wise (and her story “Harvest Song, Gathering Song”) Livia Llewellyn (and her collection Furnace), Lovecraft, Jeff VanderMeer (especially Annihilation), China Mieville (such as Perdido Street Station), and others like Priya Sharma, Maria Dahvana Headley, Benjamin Percy…I could go on all day. Authors that are writing original horror, neo-noir, and new-weird have been major influences on my work.
DJ: What kinds of stories can readers expect in the anthology?
Richard: It’s a blend of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. But I wouldn’t call anything “classic.” I tend to have strange structures (epistolary, second person, choruses) and I work hard to take classic emotions, influences, and genre expectation to some different places. I’m always challenging myself to do more—tread original ground, surprise the reader, and earn the ending, while getting an emotional reaction from the reader. Under the bigger umbrellas I’ve mentioned I’d also say neo-noir and new-weird, so there are some surreal moments, some unreliable narrators, some of the odd Black Mirror or Twilight Zone moments in here as well. Most are about 5,000 words, with a few shorter bits of flash fiction here and there, and then the novelette at the end.
DJ: There are many different definitions of horror in genre, so I’m curious, when you write “horror” story, how is it that you try to scare your readers? Do you go for gore? Shock? Maybe build up tense moments? Or perhaps it is the unknown?
Richard: I’ve gotten away from the gore and splatterpunk horror. So if that’s what you’re looking for, this is not your collection. I like psychological horror, stories that work across three levels—body, mind, and soul. I want to write stories that can be enjoyed at a base level—entertaining, page-turning, things happen, and you are immersed in the story. Then I like to get an emotional reaction—to get the reader to feel something, maybe empathy and sympathy, to root for characters, to be unsettled, using tension, and fear, and depth. And then I want to take in the literary influences of my MFA to get you to think about what I’ve said and shown you, to have you walk away from the story still thinking about it, chewing on the ending, wondering if you did indeed see what you thought you saw. I want these stories to say with you. So my brand of horror looks for universal truths, using broad brushstrokes, and then tries to connect on a personal level with unique, specific details, and fears. I try to hook the reader with the title, first line, first paragraph, first page, and first scene. I want to get under your skin, to lead you slowly out into the woods, following a trail of bread crumbs. I want you to not notice that as a frog you’ve been sitting in a pot of water, that has been slowly building to a boil. I think I do my best work when it feels intimate, like we’re sharing secrets, like you’re seeing things maybe you shouldn’t see, and then you’re figuring this out with me, with the protagonist, that sense of mystery, and discovery.
DJ: Being an author, what do you believe makes a good short-story? How does it differ from writing novel-length stories?
Richard: You don’t have the time that a novel grants you, so you have to do double and triple duty with every sentence—advancing the plot, revealing the character, and building the world (and setting). I use Freytag’s Triangle (or Pyramid) as my structure, so I follow that pretty closely. Narrative hook, inciting incident (that moment in time after which things will never be the same), rising tension, internal and external conflicts, leading to a climax and resolution that has change, followed by the denouement (an epiphany related to what has just happened). The same rules apply to a novel, just in less words.
DJ: This may… this will be a difficult question to answer, but what are some of your favorite stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion? I don’t mean what you believe is the best, but perhaps some stories have a particular setting, theme, message, or character that stood out to you?
Richard: Great question. I love seeing reviews where critics or fans talk about their favorite stories because it’s always surprising to me when the love something that I would put lower on the table of contents. You never know what’s going to push somebody’s buttons—clowns, cosmic horror, vengeance, redemption. I think the stories that resonate the most with me are usually the ones that were harder to write, or take more chances. I talk in the endnotes about my experience writing “Hiraeth” and how I turned in two versions to my editor, Doug Murano, one of them much riskier, cutting off the opening scene entirely. He chose the riskier one, and it ended up being the anchor story in that anthology, which won him the Bram Stoker Award. I also have a soft spot for “A Caged Birds Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation,” because I really dig the title, and it’s a weird story, basically told in four acts, with the second act shifting to this creator scene that’s pretty wild, and an ending that is very Twilight Zone. If I had to pick my favorite though, it’s probably the novelette at the end, “Ring of Fire.” I know it’s weird, and challenging, but for the right reader, that ending should really be both crushing and inspiring. I hope. It’s risky, and made the Preliminary Bram Stoker ballot. It’s not for everyone, but I put a lot of myself into that one, and hope it’s a journey that is worth the trip. I put it last, as that’s the note I wanted to end on, and I hope it has impact for my readers. And some hope.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Spontaneous Human Combustion?
Richard: These stories span five or six years, so I think really, every story in here was part of a relationship with an editor, a challenge from an open call, a story and concept that I wanted to chase down. These are themes and emotions and ideas that fascinated me, and so I enjoyed trying to create something new, emotional, and impactful for my readers. There is some range here—length, genre, tone, emotion, structure—but I also feel these stories are unified. I set the order in a particular way to create an experience—a flow, a journey, an experience. It’s like a rock concert or a 14-course meal—I want to lift you up and then bring you back down, get you excited and the make it calm; I want to run you through sweet and sour and bitter and salty and umami; the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
Richard: Wow, great question. I hope the last story resonates for them, and is the peak experience from the collection—the apex, the best story, the cherry on top. I want them to walk away feeling a lot of strong emotions, one of them being hope. I hope that I will find a new fan in them, that they’ll come back for more. I don’t know if every story will resonate with them, but I hope there are a few that they find hypnotic, immersive, enlightening. I mean, I hope they say this is the best short story they’ve read this year, or in a long time, or EVER! LOL But I’ll just be happy if they found my stories to be worth their time—unique, emotional, hopeful, and unsettling.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Spontaneous Human Combustion that you can share with us?
Richard: Actually there are four quotes that lead off the collection, from four books that I teach in my classes, and those really speak to my POV and this collection. So I’d love to include all four here. If they are read together, I think they really show the reader what to expect from this collection:
“Man is the creature he fears.”
—Bird Box by Josh Malerman
“When you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”
—Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
“Old stories told how Weavers would kill each other over aesthetic disagreements, such as whether it was prettier to destroy an army of a thousand men or to leave it be, or whether a particular dandelion should or should not be plucked. For a Weaver, to think was to think aesthetically. To act—to Weave—was to bring about more pleasing patterns. They did not eat physical food: they seemed to subsist on the appreciation of beauty.”
—Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
“What we think is impossible happens all the time.”
—Come Closer by Sara Gran
DJ: Now that Spontaneous Human Combustion is released, what is next for you?
Richard: I just gave my agent my latest novel, Incarnate. It’s my first book in about five years. It’s an arctic horror novel, with a sin-eater as the first protagonist, and it’s a wild ride. I’ve been saying it’s a mix of The Thing and The Terror with a heavy dose of The Giver. So there is horror, and monsters, and absolution, but also hope. I think it may be my best work to date. Living in Chicago I was able to tap into the cold, this book set in an imaginary place somewhere between Barrow, Alaska (where they have sixty days of night) and the arctic. The sin-eating involves these meals where I could have fun as a foodie to really use every sense to make those experiences both wondrous and then horrific. The birthing of the creatures from those moments were also challenging, trying to show the reader something they may not have seen before. It’s a wild ride, and I hope at the end that there is crying, and peace, and hope. Fingers crossed! LOL
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Richard-Thomas/e/B0036EYNDC
Column (Storyville): http://litreactor.com/tags/storyville
Teaching Website (Storyville): https://storyvilleonline.com/
DJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Richard: Sure. For all of you out there thinking about writing, it’s never too late. If you grew up reading everything you could get your hands on, if you were the kid that wrote papers for your friends because it was fun, if you feel you have story to tell, start writing now! I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 40, I’m 54 now. It was the best decision of my life. My students who go through my Short Story Mechanics class to Contemporary Dark Fiction and on to my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop—do really well. Whether it’s with me, or a local community college, or an MFA program, or online classes and workshop, hop in and see what happens. Stephen King says that in order to write you must do two things—read and write. If I can help in any way, reach out, drop me a note. Being an author is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. Best of luck with your career—whatever that may be.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
Richard: My pleasure! Thank you so much for having me.
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***Spontaneous Human Combustion is published by Turner Publishing and is available TODAY!!!***
Buy the Book:
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About the Book:
With a foreword by Brian Evenson.
In this new collection, Richard Thomas has crafted fourteen stories that push the boundaries of dark fiction in an intoxicating, piercing blend of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Equally provocative and profound, each story is masterfully woven with transgressive themes that burrow beneath the skin.
• A poker game yields a strange prize that haunts one man, his game of chance now turned into a life-or-death coin flip.
• A set of twins find they have mysterious new powers when an asteroid crashes in a field near their house, and the decisions they make create an uneasy balance.
• A fantasy world is filled with one man’s desire to feel whole again, finally finding love, only to have the shocking truth of his life exposed in an appalling twist.
• A father and son work slave labor in a brave new world run by aliens and mount a rebellion that may end up freeing them all.
• A clown takes off his make-up in a gloomy basement to reveal something more horrifying under the white, tacky skin.
Powerful and haunting, Thomas’ transportive collection dares you to examine what lies in the darkest, most twisted corners of human existence and not be transformed by what you find.
About the Author:
Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots, Staring into the Abyss, Tribulations and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. His over 150 stories in print include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), Cemetery Dance(twice), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, and Shivers VI. Visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com for more information.