Interview: Not Afraid of the Dark: A Talk with Writer Richard Thomas

Numerically speaking, 2/22/22 (today), has a special resonance for Chicago area writer, editor, and teacher Richard Thomas. His latest book, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Keylight), a collection of short stories, was just released. Born in St. Louis, Thomas made the Chicago area his home in 1990, and while frequently connected with the dark fiction field, his writings have ventured into horror, southern gothic, magical realism, neo-noir, and other types and genres as well. Thus far, he’s published eight books and more than 165 stories, appearing in publications like Cemetery Dance and the eleventh volume of The Best Horror of the Year anthology. While known for going dark, thematically speaking, Thomas spoke openly about his new book, career, and what is and isn’t scary anymore.

What made you want to be a writer?

I’ve always loved reading, since I was in grade school. I would read whatever I could get my hands on—my grandmother’s Readers Digests and Agatha Christie novels, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Stephen King—you name it. I wrote in high school, and in college, but went into advertising as a graphic designer and art director. It’s not like I didn’t sit in my apartment in downtown Chicago typing up bad stories and sending them off to Wired and Omni, I just wasn’t nearly good enough.

Fast forward 20 years and after seeing Fight Club I found Chuck Palahniuk’s website (The Cult) where I would hang out, and read everything Chuck ever wrote. That got me to another website (The Velvet) where I discovered Stephen Graham Jones, Craig Clevenger, and Will Christopher Baer. If Chuck woke me up, they showed me what neo-noir could be. And thanks to a writing class I took with Craig, my first short story got accepted by Cemetery Dance for Shivers VI, alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub. Once I broke out, I discovered, and remembered, how much I loved writing. And it turned out I didn’t entirely suck. (Laughs) I wasn’t sure.

How did you find your way to writing horror? Any particular event, or was it a slow evolution?

I often think about this. Probably growing up and reading Stephen King, starting in high school. But there was also a moment when I was hiking in downtown St. Louis where I saw a man parachute out of a plane, land on the St. Louis Arch, and then plummet to his death. My Boy Scout troop ran up the stairs from the landing, and I saw him hit, and bounce. I’d never seen so much blood—a sheen of it as wide as the leg of the arch. That may have been the inception. You can’t unsee that.

Richard Thomas

I've seen your stuff described as "dark fiction." Is that accurate, and why or why not?

I definitely write dark fiction. But I’m glad you didn’t say just “horror” as I write across many genres, and consider myself a hybrid author—fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers, neo-noir, Southern gothic, magical realism, new-weird, transgressive, and even literary fiction. I’m a maximalist, and so that quite often leads me to horror, but also fantasy and other genres that like heavy setting, sensory details, and immersion.

I came up writing more gritty realism and horror, neo-noir, and whatnot, but in the last five years, especially with the new collection, I’ve replaced death with love, and put hope at the end of quite a few stories. It’s just been too bleak of late to have that downward spiral end in death and destruction. So, I guess, I’d call some of my work “hopepunk” right now as well.

Tell me a bit about your new collection Spontaneous Human Combustion and what readers can expect.

I’d like to think it’s my best work to date—14 stories that I’ve written over the last five years or so. It’s all dark, across several genres, but there is a nice bit of hope woven into these tales. The title isn’t about spontaneous human combustion, as much as it is about spontaneous human combustion. There are no werewolf stories in this collection, the cover is not about that (although there are wolves in a few stories). It’s about the beast within us all, the balance between human and monstrous, the dark secrets we all have, and the ways we can be both at the same time.

You know the Native American parable about the two wolves that live inside us, right? Love and hate? Which one survives? The one we feed. So this collection is about transformation, sacrifice, redemption, justice, and consequence. Sometimes the endings are happy, and sometimes they are not. Depending on what side you’re on, I guess, LOL. It’s out on 2/22/22 and is getting some nice buzz, so far—two starred reviews, my first.

What's still scary these days, and what's not scary any more?

Man, great question. Universal truths still get to me. Fear of it all ending, of not mattering, of going insane, losing my mind. Hereditary is a film that really pushed my buttons. Another recent one, Swallow, I found to be quite intense. Slowly creeping horrors that are impossible to stop. Anything that might threaten my family, the instability of the universe and the world as we know it. You know, the usual.

You teach writing as well, what do you try to get across to new writers?

A few things, yeah. As people work their way across the three classes of mine that I recommend—Short Story Mechanics, Contemporary Dark Fiction, and my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop—I encourage them to look at their inspirations, to list their 10 favorite authors, books, stories, films, and television shows—in order to figure out what they are drawn to, and what they might like to create. What genres do you want to write, what is your style, what are you trying to say and do? I don’t want to make them sound like me, or Stephen King, or Chuck Palahniuk. I want them to be the best version of themselves that they can be, but first they have to understand where they come from, and who they are, as an author.

What are you reading these days, or what book or books (old or new) would you recommend to others? Mostly what I'm reading these days are the best of the year anthologies for my classes—Best Horror of the Year, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Best American Short Stories. All three anthologies are great, showing me more work from voices I already love, and introducing me to new authors, or at least, new to me. I really enjoyed The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, as well. As for older books, I teach four in my dark fiction class, and those are—Bird Box by Josh Malerman, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, Come Closer by Sara Gran, and Perdido Street Station. Pretty much anything by Brian Evenson.

Is there anything I didn't ask that you wish I'd asked?

What’s my zodiac/Chinese astrology combination, maybe? Just found that out. So I’m a Goat Scorpion. In other words, Azazel. Which is, unsettling. (Laughs) That and what do I have coming out next? I have a story, “Peripheral Vision” out in the Hideous Book of Hidden Horrors anthology that Doug Murano is editing over at his new press, Bad Hand Books. And of course, the collection on 2/22/22.

Spontaneous Human Combustion is available in most bookstores and through the publisher, Keylight Books.

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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.