An Interview with Horror Writer Max D. Stanton.
Max D. Stanton is an educator, librarian, and Dungeons & Dragons nerd who lives in West Philadelphia with his wonderful girlfriend and their two savage, unruly hounds. Max used to be a corporate attorney, but he chose a new way of life after an unexpected encounter with the Devil. A Season of Loathsome Miracles is his first short story collection.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be a writer?
I've been writing almost for as long as I can remember, but I decided to approach it seriously a few years ago when I found a tarot card on the sidewalk. The Devil, from the Rider-Waite deck. Being a somewhat superstitious fellow I decided to look into the meaning of the card, and I found that a common interpretation is attachment to things that harm us. The Devil's victims wear their chains by choice. I realized that I had to change my life in a few fundamental ways, one of which was a career change, and one of which was fulfilling my ambition to write and publish. That card was a fateful piece of litter.
Your collection A Season of Loathsome Miracles is very diverse in content, including various subgenres of horror and also science fiction. Can you talk about how the collection came to be, and how your experience differs between writing horror and science fiction?
I started off submitting short stories to different magazines and anthologies. Sometimes if I saw a call for submissions on an interesting theme I'd try to write something up for it, which is challenge I enjoy. And once I'd built up enough of a critical mass of published works, a collection was the next logical step. Fortunately they found a good home with Scarlett Algee and Trepidatio.
I don't feel much of a difference between writing horror and science fiction, except that sci-fi needs a bit more world-building and attention to the scenery. Either way the most important thing is the characters and the journey that they're on.
Can you talk about your incorporation of humor and satire in your stories?
I believe that humor and horror are closely related. Horror amps up our sense of dread and discomfort; humor discharges that tension in an enjoyable way. So including elements of dark comedy helps give the reader a varied experience and keeps them off balance. When a story is nothing but doom-and-gloom it can feel like an escalator ride down to nowhere. Putting in some laughs turns it into more of an emotional roller coaster. And satire goes wonderfully into this mix as well, because what's more absurd or frightening than a magnified vision of our society?
Do you enjoy reading books outside of the horror fiction realm?
Yes, although I don't read nearly as much as I'd like to. Charles Portis and Thomas Berger are a couple of my favorite writers for when I want something light-hearted. Most of my non-fiction reading is research for stories, but that can be fun, too.
Could you share some specific short stories that impacted you as a writer?
Stephen King's Skeleton Crew collection had a few stories that really got to me. I think King does his best work when he's keeping it short. The Jaunt does an amazing job of combining a sci-fi social history with an incredibly frightening family story. Survivor Type is a memorably nasty epistolary tale, which is a favorite style of mine. And then there are the classics - The Cask of Amontillado, The Lottery, and Call of Cthulhu all had a lot of impact on impressionable young Max.
How would you define a good story in a few sentences?
I think a good story is an opportunity to spend time with interesting people as they go upon a journey.
Do you have a favourite piece of art from a medium outside of literature that inspires your writing?
I can think about Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son all day, although I probably shouldn't.
Some of your stories are poignant criticisms of pop and/or elite culture. Why do these parts of culture appeal to you as subjects?
Because they're bright and shiny and fun and recognizable and powerful.
There are references to H.P. Lovecraft’s and Robert W. Chambers works, among others, in your stories. How did their works influence you?
I love all the gods and beasties of the Lovecraft Mythos, but my favorite idea from Lovecraft is his cosmic pessimism. That feeling of terrified awe at being a small and insignificant thing in a vast, hostile, and mostly incomprehensible universe. I think that a lot of people can relate to that feeling, and I hope that modern writers can keep on building in the world he created while acknowledging and rejecting his racism.
I think that Chambers' main influence on me is the idea of dangerous art. Not just art that's haunted, not just art that makes you go mad when you see it, but art that transforms you into a different person.
What does horror mean or include as a genre to you?
I once heard horror defined as "the only genre defined by an emotion" and that has stuck with me. I say that the horror genre can encompass any art that's intended to inspire dread. I don't see the point of trying to draw borders more precise than that.
That said, my favorite parts of the horror genre tend to focus on the supernatural, the monstrous, and the cosmic. And I love Addams Family-style horror aesthetics. I've never been much into serial killers or slashers - just not my cup of tea.
Your stories could be described as body horrors. Why is this a subcategory that you are drawn to?
I wonder that myself. I think I just have a lot of body-related anxieties - about sex, about kids and procreation, about the inevitable decay of my body and maybe my mind along with it - and when I'm anxious about something I tend to write monstrous, exaggerated versions of it.
What do you think or feel when you look back on your past writings?
Usually it's a mix of mild annoyance and quiet, pleasant surprise. "Darn, that's clunky, I should have phrased that dialogue better." "Oh hey, that's pretty good. Nice job, Past Max."
Have you had moments of questioning your vocation as a writer?
Sometimes I feel like nobody's reading my work and there's no point to any of it, but what else would I do with myself? Doomed and pointless adventures are the business I'm in.
Can you please describe your writing space?
Not really, because it's rather haphazard. Sometimes I'll write on my couch with my hounds heaped on me, sometimes I wall myself up in my bedroom, and during the Before Times I liked to go to coffee shops. I even had some periods where I was being fairly productive on the trolley to and from work. I feel like I'd write more and better with a more settled routine, but alas, there's all sorts of good habits I never learned. I finally put together a nice home office, so maybe that will get some use going forward.
Drug use and madness are prevalent in your stories. Can you talk about why these elements appeal to you as a writer?
I think that comes from me reading a lot of Grant Morrison, Philip K. Dick, Hunter S. Thompson, and Robert Anton Wilson. I like writing stories about quests for wisdom gone wrong, which intersects nicely with stories about drugs and madness.
Should writing be used to influence political, religious, social, environmental views, etc.? Do your own views show up in your writing?
If writing doesn't influence people I don't see the point of it. The stories in A Season of Loathsome Miracles aren't especially political, but they were mostly written in quieter days. My current project is a dystopian novel about high-tech corporate necromancers and the repressive government that loves them, so yes, I do use fiction to vent about politics.
Who is your favorite character that you’ve written?
My favorite in terms of "most fun to write" would be the Witch in Burn the Witch. I loved writing in her voice and playing around with her skill set. She's great company. My favorite in terms of "best written" is Henry Tobb from Patent for an Artificial Uterus. He's an absolute monster, but there's a wounded pride and loneliness about him that I'm very pleased with.
Is there a story, book, or character that you wish you hadn’t written, or had written differently?
(Spoiler alert) Looking back on Euphonia, I wish I'd written a happy ending for that couple, where they commit a brutal murder together and as a result they get to live in peace and harmony for the rest of their lives. I think that's actually queasier, more disturbing, and more interesting than the ending that I wrote.
If any of your fiction could be made into a film, with any director, which one and who by and why?
If the Powerball lottery granted me a wish, I'd get John Carpenter to direct The Voyage of the Jericho. Nobody does apocalypse better. I think he could bring a In The Mouth of Madness-in-space vibe to it that would be incredibly fun and satisfying. Sam Neill as Theophilus! That would be sweet.
Does your writing contribute to society? Does that matter to you?
If my goal was contributing to society, I'd do a lot more good volunteering than by tormenting fictional characters. Writing is something that I do primarily for myself. That said, I would feel bad if I was just howling into the void. I hope people read my work and that it brings them some enjoyment.
What is your earliest memory of reading or hearing a story?
Little Bear at my grandmother's house. What a nice memory, thank you for asking the question.
You can effortlessly ease into the narrative voice of women, as proven by your powerful story “Burn the Witch.” How do you approach writing a story as an out-group narrator?
It's not effortless, but I'm glad it seems that way! I think the key thing is to try to think through a character's life as thoroughly as you can. What is their everyday routine like? What experiences have shaped them? What do they notice and what do they ignore? And the more different the POV character is from myself, the more important it is to think all these things through, because the less I can draw on personal experience.
Do you think you see the world differently than non-writers?
I think I might be more inclined to see the world in terms of stories and narratives than other people.
What does it mean to be original or unique as a writer, particularly within speculative genres?
I think that originality is the ability to offer a fresh perspective. Sometimes people do that with new creations that are all their own, and sometimes people do that by taking tropes or characters that we've seen before and rotating them to a new angle. I think there can be incredible creativity in working with concepts that other writers have established.
Are you better today than when you first started?
I think so. At a minimum I feel like I've got a broader perspective on life than my younger self did, and that can only help my writing.
Do you have other publications in the works?
In September I have a story called Cold Reading coming out in Sortes. That one's inspired by the book Nightmare Alley, which is a favorite of mine. I also have a story called The Dying Chorus: An Oral History of the Carcosan Art Collective that's been accepted for the Nightmares in Yellow Joe Pulver tribute anthology. And I'm nearly finished with a dystopian horror sci-fi novel that I'm incredibly excited for. It may be my magnum opus.
What do you think the future of horror and weird fiction will be?
It feels strange to talk about futures in 2020. The future seems so contingent these days. If we're not just heading for The Road, then I hope the horror genre opens itself up to voices that have traditionally been underrepresented in publishing and folklore from non-Western countries. I'd love to see monsters like penanggalan or oni get more of a foothold in pop culture.
What are the most intriguing books you’ve read in the past year?
I thought Emma J. Gibbon's Dark Blood Comes From The Feet was wonderful. It's very human, very relatable - horror that's more about fears like loneliness or betrayal than about the gore and monstrosities I tend to truck with. I also had a lot of fun with Cody Goodfellow's Unamerica, which is a rollicking dystopian farce.
“With a diverse mix of strange tales and cosmic horror, A Season of Loathsome Miracles pays homage to the roots of weird fiction while also perverting it in interesting and clever ways. Packed with infernal devices, diabolical wax museums, occult films, the transformative properties of yoga, Lovecraftian whodunits, and burning witches, with his debut collection Stanton establishes himself as a haunting new voice calling to you from the shadows.” —Sam Richard, author of Sabbath of the Fox-Devils and To Wallow in Ash & Other Sorrows"
Stanton's debut collection, A Season of Loathsome Miracles, was released in June 2020 from Trepidatio Publishing. Order your copy here.
You can follow Max D. Stanton on Twitter.
This interview was conducted by Farah Rose Smith in August of 2020.