Interview: “His Darkest Shadow Self”—A Talk with Horror/Romance Author Rick R. Reed

Author Rick R. Reed

Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing career. 

It's hard for me to believe my writing "career" has been going on now for more than three decades. My first two novels, Obsessed and Penance, were published in Dell's cutting-edge line of horror called Abyss in the early '90s. I was honored to be in a line that Stephen King praised and featured breakthroughs by such stellar horror writers as Poppy Z. Brite, Brian Hodge, and Kathe Koja, among others. Unfortunately, the line, after making a big splash in horror, died a quick death when the editor who'd founded it at Dell left to pursue teaching and her own writing. Horror took a bit of a nosedive in the 90s and I didn't see novel publication again until 2000, when my modern-day version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was released with the title A Face Without a Heart. The book did well and was shortlisted for several awards. It took me until 2007, before I really began hitting my stride with my novels. From 2007 until the present, I've been humbled and honored to see more than 40 of my novels published, everything from romance to horror to literary fiction. My work has won awards, hit the Amazon bestseller lists several times, and has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian.

The personal stuff: I was born and reared in the foothills of the Appalachians. My father was a welder and my mother a potter. Who knows why the son of this immigrant Sicilian mom and hard-working dad eschewed sports and the outdoors to have his nose almost constantly buried in a book? "Go outside and play," was a refrain I heard a lot from my parents and one which I ignored. I'm glad I did. 

Currently, I live in southern California with my husband, whom I've been with for more than 18 years, and our dog. I was married to a woman before I came out and that union produced a wonderful son (I wrote about that whole process in my novel, Unraveling). I have few regrets. 


You’ve written both horror and romance novels. What brought you to these genres?

Glad you asked that. I have an answer ready for you in the form of a blog post I wrote several years ago:

The public sometimes sees two of me—one is the “Stephen King of gay horror” and that me writes books like A Demon InsideBlood Sacrifice, and Third Eye. This Stephen King character is grizzled, bearded, and grumpy. You don’t want to meet up with him in a dark alley.

The other me is much lighter, in terms of psyche. That me is a gay romance writer. This guy, who is clean-shaven, has a smile for everyone, is generally in a good mood, and writes love stories like ChaserLegally WedCaregiver and Dinner at Home.

These two me’s have seldom been left alone in a room together and when they have they have managed to produce books that are a hybrid of the two, books like Dinner at the Blue Moon Cafe and Bashed. Those two combine the sometimes-at-odds with the other combination of horror and romance.

For the first time ever, the two me’s sat down in a café in Seattle’s free-spirited Fremont neighborhood (neutral territory because the horror me likes the big troll statue living under one end of the Aurora Bridge). In order to keep things, um, straight, the following interview uses HM to indicate Horror Me and RM to indicate Romance Me. And yes, you can romance me, any time…

HM: So what are you doing here? Must you show up everywhere I want to be? Christ, I can’t get a moment by myself.

RM: Sorry, but it’s a free country. I can be anywhere I want. What’s that? A cappuccino?

HM: (Rolls eyes) It’s a black coffee. Drip.

RM: Well, I’m having the crème brûlée latte.

HM: You would (snorts).

RM: I detect a note of disdain here.

HM: Well, there’s more than a note, Miss. Why are you sitting down at my table? Did I invite you?

RM: No, but I belong here as much as you do.

HM: Getting back to the disdain, I have disdain for you because you are taking over my personality and stealing my reputation. Before you happened along with your little love stories, I was doing quite well for myself writing about blood, gore, and things that go bump in the night. You know, mapping out nightmare territory. I had my author photos taken in cemeteries. People knew me for throwing a good scare into them.

RM: And they still know you for that, which is something you’d realize if you took a good, hard look at yourself. But I am here to tell you there is room for more than one writer under this rapidly-thinning head of hair.

HM: But why? Why romance? It’s the antithesis of everything I stood for.

RM: Not really. Romance, like horror, is ultimately about strong emotion. Fear, like love, is universal. So, we are not as different as you’d like to think.

HM: I’m not so sure about that. I write about people being killed, people being haunted, monsters, ghouls. I don’t see how that’s much like your la-di-da romance tales.

RM: Think of the emotions involved. The rising sense of excitement, the increased heart rate and perspiration, the breathlessness. All of those are present with both fear and passion.

HM: Okay, I get it. I get it. But does that mean you still have to step on my toes? You’re ruining my reputation.

RM: Just like with love, sweetheart, there’s room for variety, for harmony. I think we can coexist.

HM: But you seem so much more powerful lately. Just look at the books that have come from you over the past  year.

RM: You’re right.

HM: Why is that?

RM: (Pausing to consider and take a sip of his latte) Maybe it’s because I’ve reached a different place in my life. I’ve reached a place where the stories I want to tell are about something other than the terror that life can bring, but the joy that life can bring, too.

See, for years, when you were really my dominant force, I was consumed with finding love in my own life. And I came close many times, for one reason or another, it never worked out. That is, until I met Bruce. He was the one. The perfect fit. The soul mate. The one with whom I can’t imagine not spending the rest of my days.

Once I was secure in my own personal romance, only then was I free to write about others’. Does that make sense? I needed to confront my fears (not just the ghastly, curl-your-hair ones), but the ones about being alone, about maybe never making that connection that was more than just passion, but family.

HM doesn’t say anything for a long while. He sips his coffee and eyes me, like I’m some sort of alien—not the illegal kind, but an invader from another planet. The kind he might write about. For a moment, I am afraid, he will fling the coffee into my face, but then a strange thing happens—he begins to fade away, just like the ghosts in the stories he used to pen.

Just as he’s about to disappear completely, he stops in mid-transformation and eyes me.

HM: I get you. You were who I always wanted to be. But, although I am fading away before your very eyes, I am not disappearing.

I am merging with you. 


You lived in Chicago for a while but have moved around the country several times. Still, you keep coming back to Chicago in your work. What is it about the city that appeals to you as a setting?

Ah, Chicago. It's truly my adopted hometown. In the 20-odd years I lived there (and odd is both figurative and literal), I truly felt at home, a part of this chaotic city with its diversity and hard edges, softened by the lakeshore at its eastern edge. Chicago stays alive in my imagination. And its streets and L stops come back to me easily when I write; they're secondhand. Writing about the city allows me to come back for a visit again. It's cheaper than a plane ticket. 


Set in the early 1990s, The Man from Milwaukee mentions two looming specters of the time: serial killers and the AIDS pandemic. Care to reflect on that?

The Man from Milwaukee is about a closeted young man who develops an unhealthy obsession with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The root of his obsession lies in the fact that he hates himself so much for being gay, and this fact—and the irresistible forces he copes with—makes him believe in a very twisted way that he and Dahmer have a connection, a thing in common. He begins a correspondence with the killer shortly after his arrest in 1991, and the letters form a kind of framework for how the main character's delusions develop and become a danger not only to himself, but to others. AIDS plays a part because the main character, Emory Hughes, lives with his mother and is her caregiver—she's dying from AIDS. Remember, this was 1991, so the virus was literally a death sentence. Despite his mother having become infected via a blood transfusion, her decline is also a reflection on Emory's sexual orientation and what he hates about himself.


Tell us about your main character Emory Hughes. He seems familiar—a tall, shy, skinny, cute fellow muttering about his dead mother, but there’s more to him than that, I’d think

I think you're comparing Emory to Norman Bates. I could be wrong, but that's my impression. Emory Hughes, like many of my characters, appears in shades of gray. He's a caring young man whose life circumstances (a mother dying from AIDS, a younger sister filled with disdain for him, a nowhere job, and crippling shyness) combine to make life very challenging for him. As an unreliable narrator, his actions and thoughts are tempered by a twisted view of reality and expectations about life. He's lost hope and finds the world a pretty uncaring place. He feels invisible. His correspondence with the, at the time, world's most notorious serial killer lifts him out of obscurity. Letters from Dahmer at last make him feel seen—and understood. It's a precarious tightrope he walks. In spite of his psychological instability, I think there are aspects of him that readers can sympathize with. They may not understand him, but they will come to care about him and hope he finds a way out.


In the book you mention other serial killers who killed young men, such as Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and Larry Eyler. What drew you to Dahmer in particular as a character?

My first novel, Obsessed, came out in the summer of 1991. It was a horror novel about a man who believed he was a vampire and his reign of terror in Chicago. Coincidentally, Dahmer was arrested at just about the time my novel came out, Heady with my first publication, I thought I might be able to tell Dahmer's story in book form. Like Emory Hughes, I wrote to Dahmer in prison and sent him a copy of my book. I never got a response, but Dahmer has always loomed large in my serial-killer-fascinated mind. I think a lot of that fascination, and part of the impetus for the novel, was the fact that Dahmer wanted to find someone who would stay with him. There's something very human about that in the midst of his monstrosities. That desire of his drove the book, really.


You’ve written romance novels. The Man from Milwaukee features a romance that tumbles into horror. It even features a sort of triangle—if that’s the right word—between Emory, Tyler, and Dahmer. What do you think?

There's a bit of a love story there. I don't think most romance readers would classify the book as a romance, though, in any shape or form. The relationship between Tyler and Emory is a study in contrasts. Tyler is young, carefree, and most importantly, accepts himself as a gay man. By contrast, Emory can't accept himself and his self-loathing causes his problems with himself and the world. They are sort of light and dark, yin and yang. Dahmer represents Emory's longing for connection and at the same time, paradoxically, his darkest shadow self.


What are you reading lately and what books do you recommend?

One of my very favorite books this year was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. It's a wonderful novel that manages to be both enlightening about the human condition and a fiercely literate, compelling, and entertaining tale.


Here’s my standard closing question: is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I had asked?

I wish you had asked about my many head injuries. I've never broken a bone, but I've had several concussions and stitches in my head more times than I can count. Perhaps these injuries account for the fact that I'm fascinated by the macabre and often live in a world of my own imagining. 


Rick R. Reed’s website can be found here.

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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.