After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve been able to find the time to bring back my popular series of interviews with authors and editors that I’ve featured here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer over the years; and I’m absolutely delighted to continue by chatting with a rising star in the Weird Horror genre, author Sean M. Thompson. He’s the author of a number of strange, ethereal and unsettlingly weird stories including the novellas Farmington Correctional and Astrum, his short story collection Screaming Creatures, and novel Th3 D3mon. He’s also contributed short stories to a number of publications, including many from two of my favourite publishers – Muzzleland Press and Orford Parish Books. An incredibly talented yet underappreciated author, Sean was kind enough to find time in his schedule to agree to answer some questions from me about his background and life experiences, and how those have influenced his writing and his goals as an author; the inspirations behind his various stories; how he manages to write stories across different genres; and what his plans are for the future.
Hi there Sean, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer!
Not a problem. Thanks for thinking of ya boi.
Perhaps we could start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how you found yourself becoming an author?
I have to start by saying anytime someone asks me my background I have to refrain from giving some ridiculous answer like “Well, I was raised by feral cats in the woods of Maine.” But I will hold off from being a smarmy asshole… at least in this instance—it is sort of my personality, hahaha. No, I was raised in central Massachusetts, specifically Framingham, until the second grade. Then a move to Sudbury, a small affluent suburb, that was a prominent town during the Revolutionary War. My family isn’t rich, but we are middle class, though anywhere else in the country we’d be closer to upper middle. My parents are still like paying off the fucking house. It’s been a few decades. Mom is Irish and Dad is half Irish half Syrian. I was raised Unitarian. So I’m a lapsed Unitarian, though I do consider myself spiritual; mainly that manifests as a strong love of nature, and animals. I have a younger sister, six years younger, to be exact. As for how I found myself becoming an author, I don’t have the traditional story. A lot of people it’s well in third grade I was writing stories for my friends, but I had nothing like that.
When I was in high school I was between being a rapper (true story), or a skateboard videographer, as I used to skateboard and still love the sport, and I did have an interest in film. I was always that kid who was good at poetry without trying, so that was probably the first step, realizing I had a talent. I didn’t really pursue it save writing lyrics in my notebooks during class and shit. I went to college at The University of Massachusetts where I got a Bachelor’s in English, so obviously the love of the word was there. But I didn’t write a short story until my first girlfriend showed me one her ex wrote her, and I was like “this is bullshit, I can do better than this.” So I wrote my first story, and it wasn’t bad: I think with an edit even today it’d still hold up. And it snowballed from there, though admittedly my first long form projects were scripts for a class on screenwriting. This would have been maybe 2003? And then I just got into writing short stories, eventually segued into novels, though I only have one novel out (I have 2 finished that just needs edits).
When you started to write, were there any particular authors and settings that inspired you; and perhaps still do?
Hmm. Well when I started it was typical authors like King, Barker, Gaiman. I got into Ben Templesmith and Steve Niles in college after reading 30 Days of Night. So those authors, along with writers like Palahniuk, as I’ve always been interested in over the top. But simultaneously I found myself drawn to writers like Guillermo Del Toro, Brad Anderson who did Session 9, the guy who did screenplay for Ravenous. David Fincher. So I’ve always been fairly even in terms of influences from literature, and film. I got big into Jack Ketchum just around when I graduated college, and really if you read my work I think he’ maybe the most obvious consistent influence. Lately it’s been writers like Matthew M. Bartlett, Tom Breen, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, Kristi Demeester, Paula Ashe, Dan Chaon, Kelly Link, Jon Padgett, Thomas Ligotti. B.R. Yeager, Negative Space is sick. Screenwriters, Jesus, I can’t remember off the top of my head. I like Pizzolatto a lot. Whoever wrote The Empty Man, let me look it up… David Prior. Oh, and Nick Antosca is rad as fuck. He did Channel Zero, as well as some prose early days, genre stuff. Oh, and Noah Hawley, who did the Fargo show, and Legion, he’s another prose guy who went to screenwriting. I’d love to do that someday. (Any producers reading this, howdy!) In terms of setting it started with Massachusetts, and New England. Then I segued into Boston when I was living there (I lived in Malden from about 2010 to 2019). And now a lot of stuff in the desert, since I moved to Santa Fe in 2019. But lately I like to really just pick a state, and go. I try to balance things out now. Like I have a novel in progress I’ll go back to some day that’s in Ohio, another one that will likely be my next that’s coastal Maine (grandfather grew up in Portland), I have a western set in the Red Desert of Wyoming. So I like to hop. I still like writing about New England, though.
Turning to your published works, the first work of yours that I reviewed here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer was your novella Farmington Correctional, which focuses on Sarah, a therapist at the titular correctional facility running an anger management program, and Chuck an inmate imprisoned for a brutal crime he’s at a loss to explain. It’s a multi-layered and complex story that explores topics as diverse as the supernatural, religious fanaticism, and even the indifferent, uncaring and underfunded prison system in the United States of America. It’s an intense, often emotional read – and I wonder if you could talk about what led to you writing the novella, and the decision to explore those thorny, complex issues?
I write what scares me. Pretty much every aspect of prison scares me. There’s no greater or lesser reasoning. I was inspired by Barker and King’s prison stories. I wrote one. I did a bit of research into prisons in Massachusetts, and prison in general. And that brings us to now.
Your first short story collection was Screaming Creatures, which features stories that move through a variety of Horror subgenres, from post-apocalyptic to occult and even weird western. It’s a brilliant collection that stayed with me long after finishing it, and I noted in my review that there’s an unsettling, thought-provoking and often philosophical thread running through all of the stories that gives them a distinctive edge. I’m curious if you could explain how you chose which of your stories to include in the collection – and what you think its key themes are?
Screaming Creatures is about insanity. Every story in the book tackles insanity in some way or another. The rub is sometimes it’s people who think they’re insane, and then it turns out they aren’t. But just like the various sub genres I worked in I have various shades of mental illness in the book. So Cycle, that story is about the insanity of addiction, and the cycle of abuse. Or Cat’s Claw LLC that story is about the insanity of greed, and how it can make a person do things they’d never do. The title relates to a line I had I latched onto about humans as “Screaming Creatures.” I think it’s particularly apt. We like to think we are so evolved but really we’re just terrible screaming apes raping and murdering each other over magic sky men, and little green pieces of paper. Pretty nuts when you think about it, huh?
Your latest publication is the novella Astrum, which feels like an intensely personal story, something that was obvious to me as soon as I picked it up. Ostensibly a tale of a man roaming through a heavily wooded area looking for his lost child, it rapidly degenerates into a complex plot that features time travel and inhuman consciousnesses, as well as the very human horrors of drug abuse and disintegrating familial relationships. It feels very different to your previous works, though it does build on some of the themes present in them. Can you take us through the thought processes that led you to writing it? And what your aims were for it?
I’m glad you liked it, but honestly, other than the drug addiction stuff, it’s probably one of the least personal things I’ve ever written. And even then, I was addicted to Adderall, not heroin. The reason you think it’s personal is it’s my first long form, stand-alone book written in first person. First person gives you this feeling of it being personal no matter how it actually relates to the author. But I don’t have children. That was part of the experiment is can I write a father. I don’t even plan to have children. I don’t have nieces, or nephews. So if you think it’s very personal I should pat myself on the back because so much of it is just me trying to inhabit this father character. I’ve never been married. Never been divorced, obviously. I’ve been with Emily for about 15 years, but we have no plans to elope. I’ve never been molested. I know that’s what I would say, but honestly, I never have been.
It’s funny, I have to remind myself that I have 2 unpublished novels that are more or less done, and a full length mosaic novel that will contain Farmington, and Astrum. So I know it’s not far off from my current stuff, but no one else does because my new stuff isn’t out yet. I will say the tone of it, which is something you picked up on the tone of Astrum is meant to come off as very personal, because I know it’s in this full length collection, and I wanted there to be a story like that in the book. But I’m sorry to say that honestly, something like Cycle is the most personal thing I’ve ever written. Astrum is about as personal to me as the title story of Screaming Creatures, or Hate from the Sky. Which is to say it is personal in that it does resonate, but me having a kid is about as relatable to me as the sky talking, or a madness plague.
I think I’d be right in saying that most of your stories could be loosely categorized under the subgenre of “Weird Horror,” often writing in the same vein as authors like Jonathan Raab, Matthew M. Bartlett and Gemma Files. Indeed, you’ve had stories featured in anthologies like Hymns of Abomination alongside all of those writers. What is “Weird Horror” and what does it mean to you? And how does it shape your writing and your stories?
I mean you’re the one calling me “weird horror.” Basically, once your work is out, it takes on its own life. People see what they want in it, such as how you saw Astrum as a personal story. But as for that term, like, honestly? I see myself as literary surrealist horror. Or maybe transgressive horror. I sort of hate the way the “weird,” term has hijacked horror. I’m just a horror writer. I have no issue with what people want to call me, because that’s a losing battle. As long as people buy the work, then call me whatever the fuck you want. But personally I go out of my way to never refer to myself as a “weird,” writer. I just don’t feel like that. I’m not writing anything all that different from Barker, or Richard Matheson. There’s an edge to it, but that edge has always been in horror. I could see something like the term slipstream, though, and I do think weird might be close to slipstream, at times. I don’t want to bitch any more, but my entire career has been me avoiding the weird label, and losing. Because you have to understand if tomorrow I embraced the term I’d probably sell better. But I just can’t do it. When I was like 17, I wasn’t into weird. I was obsessed with horror. Horror is what has kept me alive. Horror is why I’m still on this planet. Not weird.
You’ve written several short stories for publishers that tie into their wider shared settings, including the Orford Parish collective, Matthew M. Bartlett’s eerie city of Leeds and its mysterious WXXT radio station, and Jonathan Raab’s Sheriff Kotto series (a personal favourite of mine in the Weird Horror genre). How do you have to adapt your writing process to plug into a wider setting used by groups of authors? And what have your experiences been of this sort of collaborative writing?
Oh, I love it. It’s really not that difficult for me. I mean, with Tom and Matt, like, I grew up not that far off from those areas. I mean, I realize they are fictional places, but you know, I am a New England boy, at heart. Yankee in the southwest, ayyy.
Usually the adaptation is more in the style. For Bartlett stories I go full gross-out, bizarre motherfucker. Really, the Bartlett inspired work is more just not trying to tone it down. Like, it is hard as shit to sell a story, at least for me, being as over the top as Matt goes, which is part of the reason he’s one of my favorite fucking writers. He gives zero fucks, and I think more people in horror should write like that. As for Breen, I mean, to be fair I don’t think I’ve ever actually written anything set in Orford Parish, I’ve merely written stories set in New England for a book he did. And as for Raab, I mean that was just reading Sheriff Kotto going “okay, can I write like this dude?” And I think I succeeded. Remember, I did start as a screenwriter, and am very film-centric, so setting and character tend to not be the hardest part for me, what tends to be the hardest is how do you fit into the style of these writers? Do you try to match it, try to sort of match it, or do you not bother? So the answer is usually the hard part is trying to figure out how to navigate within their established canon.
Turning now to some more general questions, I know every author is unique in terms of their writing process, but I’m curious – how do you write best? Are you one of those authors who go to a coffee shop and sit with a laptop typing away; or are you perhaps more for quiet spaces and solitude? And do you listen to anything while writing?
Oh, I have ADHD, the only thing I’d get done at a coffee shop is overeating. I tend to write better at night. My partner and I both work from home so, again, some of that is the ADHD. I can write during the day but it helps to have an empty house. So yes, I tend to do better with quiet. As for what I write to, yes, sometimes it’s to music. And actually… https://open.spotify.com/playlist/54Bepf37X94joVPJ2vg7ka
Following on from that, would you say that you’ve found your writing style changing as you’ve written more and more fiction, and moved between short fiction to novellas and then novels?
Yes, and no. My style hasn’t changed wildly from day one, from that very first story in 2003. I’m better now, obviously, but the types of stories haven’t changed. I have noticed now that I’ve written more novels shorts are getting a little trickier to hop back to. Good problem to have, I’d say.
So far you’ve focused on writing horror titles – are there any other genres that you’d like to explore and write in, that you haven’t ventured into yet? Anything that takes your fancy – but perhaps isn’t commercially/financially viable, or you haven’t had the time to focus on as yet?
I definitely have just a transgressive lit book in me, something like Irvine Welse or Chucky P might write. Not sure what the plot would be yet. As for other genres though, I have written other genres. Astrum is sci fi. Farmington is a bit crime. A recent novel I just finished is more of a comedic absurdist type of drama, with horror elements. I finished a western that also has horror a year or so ago. Saving that one for an agent. Really, the only ones I haven’t tried are an outright mystery, or an outright fantasy story. I don’t have much desire to write fantasy. But I might write a mystery some day, bearing in mind it would likely have darker basically horror elements. I’d write like an X-Files style mystery, basically. The future is bright in chez Thompson.
And finally – what’s next for you in the writing and publishing world? You recently set up Nictitating Books to release some of your own works, such as Astrum and Screaming Creatures, and I believe you’re also due to release some other authors’ works this year as well? And do you have anything coming out from other publishers that you might be working with?
I wish I had stuff coming out from other publishers! For the love of god help me!!! No, lol. Um… I have a few stories coming out in various anthos. One in an Urban Legend book edited by Sarah Walker, a few invites I can’t bring up yet, since they haven’t been announced yet. I plan to release my 90s slasher novel this summer from Nictitating. I’m putting out Paula Ashe’s collection soon, maybe February. We released Maxwell Bauman’s House of Blood and Teeth last October, a body horror haunted house novella. I have a lot of work that is finished that just needs edits, save the western novel I’m saving for an agent so it’s off limits. But other than that I got 2 full books I’ve yet to release, and I’ve started another couple of novels that are in various states. Anyway, thanks for interviewing me. Long days, and pleasant nights.