Hello and Good Afternoon, Friends and Fiends!
Today in the Madhouse, I’m hosting one of my favorite people alive: Brian Kirk. Now Brian and I first met in Vegas at the 2016 StokerCon and it was pretty much friendship at first sight. In fact, as I’m writing this (and as you’re reading it) we’re both off to StokerCon 2019 in Grand Rapids, MI where we’ll be running around and laughing (way too loud of course—have you met us?), so please be sure to drop by, say hello, and join in on the fun!
However, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Brian and his work, he is an author of unsettling stories—and I do mean unsettling. In fact, his story from Gutted: BeautifulHorror Stories (“Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave”) still creeps into my head and haunts my days from time to time. His debut novel, We Are Monsters, was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award in the first novel category and his short fiction has been published in several notable magazines and anthologies, such Behold! Oddities, Curiosities, andUndefinable Wonders, which won a Bram Stoker Award.
His latest novel is a work of surreal horror titled Will Haunt You, which has been called one of the most anticipated novels of 2019. And let me tell you folks—that’s not an exaggeration. I was lucky enough to be a beta-reader for this novel, and I can actually remember saving it to my desktop at work and reading pieces of it throughout the day. I say throughout the day because I literally had to put it away from time to time because paranoia was a very real thing for me while I was reading this book. In fact, this is the type of novel that slowly seeps inside of you and makes you question everything. But that’s the beauty of horror and surrealism, and while he only (swears) he kills his characters, this book will certainly have you checking over your shoulder just in case.
Now I wanted to switch things up a bit today and instead of the regular Q&A session that I like to do with authors, Brian and I hare going to discuss the intersection of horror and surrealism and how they tie into his book Will Haunt You. Inside you’ll get some background insight into his process, tons of book/movies recommendations, and a couple embarrassing stories, too, for good measure.
So sit back, join the tea party, and get ready to go to Wonderland!
Stephanie M. Wytovich
SW: Alrighty, let’s kick things off with hearing about the book a bit. What gave you the idea to create in this world, and in your opinion, what does it represent at its most literal and figurative heights?
BK: Will Haunt You is a book created by a mysterious figure who preys upon the people who read it. The idea was inspired by the story of a neighbor of mine who disappeared after discovering a strange book in her home. I witnessed her terrifying ordeal unfold on a community website called Nextdoor(dot)com, and managed to capture screen grabs of the posts she created, which can be viewed here. I’m not sure whether or not these posts are authentic, but the OBSIDEO book featured in the posts is what inspired my novel Will Haunt You.
My view on Will Haunt You is that it is more of an experience than a story.
SW: I could not agree with you more. This book really does read you in a lot of ways, so much so that years later, I can still vividly remember reading it for the first time. I’m curious though, what was your favorite part of the book to create and explore, and then to play devil’s advocate, what was the hardest for you?
BK: My favorite part of the book came while I was experiencing the OBSIDEO narrative that preceded the novel. I’ve always been fascinated with urban legends, and this felt like I was being sucked into one. When the Story of OBSIDEO was released to the public, it sparked the imaginations of many people following along, prompting readers and writers to contribute their own elements to the story. All of a sudden, there was a collective of people improvisationally collaborating on a story being told in real time. The story felt like it took on a life of its own, which was fun and exciting to be a part of.
The most difficult part of creating a book, for me, is everything that comes after I’ve written it. There’s a saying that goes something like, “I hate to write, but love having written.” I’m basically the polar opposite. The act of writing is what I love most, despite how hard and agonizing it can be. What I struggle the most with is everything that comes after a story is finished. The submissions, the contracts, the waiting, the reactions. My work tends to be highly polarizing and, at times, inflammatory, which is very different from my actual personality. Reconciling the opposing reactions I get as a person, and as a writer, is a challenge.
SW: I feel similar to that with my poetry. There’s always a lot of anxiety for me at first when it goes out into the world, especially as it’s gotten more personal over the years. But lately, I’ve been reading (and fumbling through writing) some pretty weird, surreal stuff, especially as I finish up my next collection The Apocalyptic Mannequin. How do you define surrealism? How does horror fit inside that definition?
For me, it’s horror that takes something non-threatening and adds a nightmarish quality to it that forces it to become disjointed, dreamlike. It uses a lot of bizarre imagery and weird associations. What immediately comes to mind are artists like: Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington (her art and her writing), Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), and a lot of David Lynch’s art/movies, specifically his short films and Eraserhead. I also think of The Nightmare On Elm Street movies because 1) it’s dealing with dreams/nightmares and 2) Kruger lives for those absurd moments when he turns a telephone into his mouth, tries to grab people through the wall, etc. Comedy and erotica also features heavily here and that leads me to think about how the id, ego, and superego works, particularly so when we’re unconscious and living out repressed desires in our dreams.
BK: I love all of those references. Especially Freddy Krueger sticking his tongue through the telephone. YES! I see surrealism as being the voice of the subconscious. As you mentioned, dreams are very surreal. The situation is often totally confusing and bizarre, and yet we know there’s a logic, however inexplicable, driving the experience.
Here’s waking logic: I’m afraid to speak in public so I’m going to spend extra time rehearsing my speech.
Here’s dream logic: I’m afraid to speak in public so my teeth will start falling out during dinner while meeting my new boyfriend’s parents for the first time.
There’s a style of writing called stream of consciousness. Surrealist fiction, to me, could be called stream of subconsciousness. It’s daydreaming from the same realm we visit at night, with its disjointed rhythm, bizarre scenarios, and hallucinogenic imagery. To that end, it often makes for effective nightmares.
Surrealism is strange and perplexing. It confounds the intellect, which is constantly striving to establish order. While surrealism is my favorite type of art, I find it to be the most frustrating and often dissatisfying at the time of consumption. After watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive for the first time, I wanted a refund, but that movie burrowed a wormhole into my brain like nothing that has followed. The story now resides in some subterranean part of my mind where my subconscious is still puzzling over it, and I find that effect very compelling.
SW: I really love your examples of dream logic vs waking logic. It reminds me a lot of the mental hulahoops that I have to do when I’m reading stuff like Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis or William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. What will absurdist literature fans see that’s familiar and how then how did you challenge them?
BK: The inspiration for the surreal aspects of this book were derived more from film, art, and even music than from literature. The narrative style of David Lynch was a big influence. As you mentioned before, so were the otherworldly images of Salvador Dahli. Also the abstract lyrics and live performances of David Byrne. Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland was certainly influential from a literary standpoint, as was Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That harrowing boat ride through the tunnel:
“There's no earthly way of knowing
Which direction we are going
There's no knowing where we're rowing
Or which way the river's flowing…”
I think there is an impulse in surrealist art to create something that has never been seen before, therefore it repels impersonation. Or, at least, attempts to. It’s like going to sleep desiring last night’s dream; you’re never going to get it.
Executing a work of surrealism, and to what effect is subjective, requires implicit trust in one’s subconscious imagination, and the silencing/gagging of one’s editorial critic.
I saw an interview with David Lynch once where he was complaining to a producer of the third season of Twin Peaks that they were too rushed for time, which didn’t allow enough time to “dream.” He didn’t say “brainstorm” or “improvise,” he was very deliberate in using the word “dream,” which is an inherently subconscious function, different, I believe, from basic creativity.
SW: It took me a long time to get into David Lynch, but I would definitely call myself a fan now, without doubt. A couple summers ago, in fact, I saw a great documentary on him titled The Art Life and it really hit me hard as an artist. Same thing with his book Catching the Big Fist: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. I also picked up his bio Room to Dream last year, and I’m really looking forward to checking it out because I love seeing his thoughts on art and film and how the two intersect, which speaking of, how does surreal horror literature differ from art and film for you?
BK: Good question. I’m not quite sure, actually. I’m not nearly as versed in surreal horror literature as I’d like to be. I imagine much of the contemporary work is being classified as “bizarro,” but I don’t know that for sure. I’d love some recommendations of modern works of surreal horror to read if you can think of any.
SW: I’d recommend reading The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. They are WILD. Her short story “The Debutante” is a great place to start--one of my favorites and there is such beautiful depth to that piece). Japanese writer Kobo Abe is another good writer for this. I read Kangaroo Notebook a few years ago and it felt like someone dipped my brain in acid and then bandaged it up with cotton candy.
BK: While surrealism has an identifiable aesthetic, it is, in my opinion, more about the feelings it evokes than what it looks like. So that’s what I went for when approaching the more surreal elements in Will Haunt You. I experimented with pacing, tone, sentence structure, text, and imagery in an attempt to evoke that same feeling of obscure discomfort I get when experiencing something surreal.
I think much of it comes down to subverting expectations and eliminating reference points so that the reader/viewer feels somewhat abandoned and unmoored. Which is tricky, because the aim is not confusion for confusion’s sake, but to produce a premonitory fear from feeling out of one’s natural element. What is even trickier is trying to confuse one’s senses in a way that’s entertaining. I could see a book with a page ripped in half during a crucial scene as producing the effects one gets from surrealism. But the seller would be mobbed with people returning the book and demanding a refund.
David Lynch (sorry, I know I keep going back to him, but he’s the master) once said that one of the scariest images he can imagine is a wobbly car tire that’s rolling in a circle about to topple over but never does. He spent several minutes in the infamous eighth episode of the return to Twin Peaks showing a long, continuous explosion. It was boring and riveting at the same time.
I think writing something surreal--using nothing more than typed letters on paper--might be trickier than producing something more visually driven, but I don’t have evidence to back that up.
What do you think?
SW: This is tricky for me, too, and I guess the first thing that comes to mind for me is that with film, you can show a string of images—related or not—and pair them with music and that will let you tell a visceral story in and of itself. With writing, it’s a little bit different because you have to create those visuals and sound spaces with words…which doesn’t always have the same effect, especially because everyone will be interpreting them differently. Film, at the very least, projects the same picture for everyone to start with, even if they end up in different places.
Speaking of where readers/viewers end up, your book is titled Will Haunt You and the initial page starts with a warning: “I read a book much like the one you’re holding now. And this is what happened to me. Don’t make the same mistake. Please, put it down. Or better yet, throw it away. This is your last warning. Turn the page, and you’re on your own. Actually, that’s not true. Turn the page and he’ll be there, watching you.”
What I like about this, and the promo material that you did for the book is that you’re directly calling out the reader, making the horror more personal and the tension more...well intense. How does this POV shift feed into the central conflict of the book and how is this individualized horror, this curse, working within the confines of surrealism?
BK: Well, I can’t get too deep into that without revealing spoilers. What I can say is that the urban legends that scare me the most are the ones where there’s an explicit threat on my own well-being. It’s one thing to know that Slenderman is out there, showing up in other people’s pictures. It’s another thing to face a mirror in a dark room and attempt to conjure Bloody Mary. I’m the one standing there ignoring the warnings. I’m the victim if something goes wrong.
SW: YES! Ah, I can remember being in elementary school and walking into the bathroom at recess, and right before I came out of the stall, a group of girls came in and turned off the lights and started chanting “Bloody Mary.” I remember sitting on the toilet and thinking “what a bunch of idiots” and closing my eyes, ha.
BK: I also think talking directly to the reader is largely discouraged in writing guidelines, as it’s guaranteed to turn some people off. It has the potential to pull some readers out of the story by making them feel too self-aware. It works on me, though. The degree to which it works, I think, depends on how willing one is to suspend disbelief, and, in the case of Will Haunt You, how susceptible one is to feelings of superstitious dread. Maybe it’s due to my OCD, but I’m naturally superstitious, and therefore vulnerable to superstitious fears. I don’t like breaking mirrors or stepping on cracks. There’s no way in hell you’d ever get me to interact with a Ouija board. In many ways, this book was an exercise in me exploring all of my gravest superstitions in an attempt to frighten myself. There are things I did while writing this book that I will never do again.
SW: I think that’s really brave. I try to do that a lot with my poetry and I know it’s not easy. This book got inside me in weird ways, so I can’t imagine what it did to you while you were writing it!
Probably my favorite (and most memorable) scene starts on page 43 when Jesse starts going through the hallways and sees the wallpaper pattern, the unfinished window/recess, the trophy room, the fire, and then most notably, hears “The Story None of Us Should Ever Know.”
BK: Ha, mine too! As related by an anonymous female narrator to me while being cooked alive.
Definitely one of the more surreal sections in the book. It’s when you, as a reader, know you’re not in Kansas anymore. You know I actually wrote most of that section while at the StokerCon in Vegas where we met? The bad Vegas juju definitely helped fuel that nightmarish scene.
Vegas. Talk about surreal.
SW: Ha! No way! That’s amazing. I spent some of that trip thinking I was lost in a velociraptor forest, and I mean, you know something is working when you’re mistaking flamingos for dinosaurs. Time to cue Hunter S. Thompson: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.”
BK: Ha, I love it! And thank you for hosting this discussion. I’m very glad we’re friends.
SW: Oh, it’s always my pleasure, and I’m beyond thrilled to have this discussion and forever support you and your art. Having said that, I gotta’ ask! What’s next in store for your readers?
The very next thing is a story titled “Chisel and Stone,” which is being published in an anthology called The Seven Deadliest, where seven authors each tackle one of the seven deadly sins. My story explores Envy. And then the 2nd edition of my debut novel, We Are Monsters, which was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award, is being released through my current publisher, Flame Tree Press. Aside from that, I have two completed novels in various stages of development--one of which will almost certainly come out next year--and am presently collaborating on an exciting new novel with my friend, and fellow author, John F.D. Taff.
SW: Consider all of the above added to my TBR pile. I also need to get my copy of We Are Monsters signed (hopefully at StokerCon if I remember to bring it). And last but not least, for all the aspiring horror writers out there, what advice do you have for writers working in fiction?
BK: Write what scares you most and strive to expand your comfort zone. Also, try and focus more on the work itself than whatever might result from it. Let writing be the reward.
About the Book:
You don't read the book. It reads you.
Rumors of a deadly book have been floating around the dark corners of the deep web. A disturbing tale about a mysterious figure who preys on those who read the book and subjects them to a world of personalized terror.
Jesse Wheeler―former guitarist of the heavy metal group The Rising Dead―was quick to discount the ominous folklore associated with the book. It takes more than some urban legend to frighten him. Hell, reality is scary enough. Seven years ago his greatest responsibility was the nightly guitar solo. Then one night when Jesse was blackout drunk, he accidentally injured his son, leaving him permanently disabled. Dreams of being a rock star died when he destroyed his son's future. Now he cuts radio jingles and fights to stay clean.
But Jesse is wrong. The legend is real―and tonight he will become the protagonist in an elaborate scheme specifically tailored to prey on his fears and resurrect the ghosts from his past. Jesse is not the only one in danger, however. By reading the book, you have volunteered to participate in the author's deadly game, with every page drawing you closer to your own personalized nightmare. The real horror doesn't begin until you reach the end.
That's when the evil comes for you.
How to Order:
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/will-haunt-you-brian-kirk/1129683656?ean=9781787581364
“A genuinely weird and powerful vision, Will Haunt You delivers on its titular boast, in spades.” –Gemma Files, author of Experimental Film
“Rest assured, this is no breezy melody. It’s a dark arrangement, a terror chorus. It will sink into your bones and shake you.” –Rio Youers, author of The Forgotten Girl and Halcyon
“An example of psychological horror at its best. Open this book carefully. It might be the last thing you do.” –Stephanie M. Wytovich, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of