Horror, Nature, and Truth: An Interview with Michael Wehunt

Throughout the beginning of the week, I had the distinct pleasure of talking to one of my favorite voices in weird and horror fiction, Michael Wehunt. You know him, of course, as the author of the Shirley Jackson and IAFA’s Crawford Award-nominated debut collection, Greener Pastures. Stop by www.michaelwehunt.com, subscribe to his site, and for God’s sake, pick up Greener Pastures on Amazon if, for some unfathomable reason, you haven’t done so already. With luck, you will enjoy reading this interview half as much as I enjoyed having the conversation.

“All a writer can do in the end is write their own truth, with their own fears and moments of beauty and grace and pain and hope. Whatever audience is out there will hopefully be drawn to that truth.”

-Michael Wehunt

Me: I’m sure I speak for all readers familiar with your work when I say I’ve been eagerly anticipating a follow up to your short story collection, Greener Pastures, which was nominated for both IAFA’s Crawford Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. Your website says “stay tuned” for a novel, The Lighted Hand, and you’ve said something about the release of a short story collection on Facebook. Is there anything you want to tell your readers about these much-anticipated releases?

Michael Wehunt: There’s not much that’s as fine a sustenance as “eagerly anticipating,” so thank you for that, Justin. Yes, I have my first novel and my second collection in the pipeline, and when I occasionally crawl out of the woods and onto social media to say things about them, it’s an attempt to remind people I still exist during this existential—I mean, er, publishing—limbo. It seems that with every rung one climbs on the ladder, there’s more waiting involved than there was before. Having an agent is a wonderful thing, but it requires a different kind of clock!

I’ll say a little bit about The Lighted Hand. Its heart is a woman who has lost everything but her father. Clair Fuentes returns to her hometown in North Georgia to be near his nursing home. There she meets his new friend, a man who, as a boy, was the central figure of a failed Appalachian doomsday cult back in the 1950s and 60s. Lost in grief and opiates and struggling to connect with her father, she turns her attention on Wyman Louth and convinces him to tell his story. As an aspiring filmmaker, she knows this will give her something to focus on instead of her broken heart. But she begins to find a strange comfort, too, in Wyman’s past… along with some equally strange discomfort. The odds are pretty good that weird stuff starts happening in the present day as well.

It’s told in an epistolary, found-materials style. Yes, there is some found footage, but I’m keeping mum about that. I wanted to play with that structure, hopefully with something new brought to it.

My second collection is complete, but while the novel is in edits, I’m sitting on it. I’m not in a huge rush, and I’d like to get a glimpse of where my big picture is before I throw it out into the marketplace. Having said that, it will feature an original story I’m really excited to share with the world.

Me: I wouldn’t worry about readers forgetting you after Greener Pastures, which we’ll definitely return to shortly. I (and many others, as a glance at your Facebook feed clearly shows) read “The Pine Arch Collection” published at The Dark. I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of film elements, and the epistolary style. You pulled it off very well, while maintaining the beautiful quality of Greener Pastures. Was this written in tandem with The Lighted Hand, since it contains many of the new elements you are describing? What inspired this new fascination with found material/film for you

Wehunt: I’m glad you liked “The Pine Arch Collection”! Film/found footage isn’t a new fascination for me. It’s more an obsession that I’ve only semi-recently allowed myself to indulge. The fear of using tropes can hamstring a writer early on, but while I’m still a pretty new writer, I’ve come to be fascinated with them. Not just the tropes themselves but how they relate to storytelling itself. There’s a line in “The Pine Arch Collection” that goes, “What is horror as fiction if it’s not horror without proof?” That’s the root of a lot of my interest. A near-meta exploration of horror through its own media, a sort of embracing of the trope. Chain letters, round robins, epistolary, subgenres—the ways to tell a story don’t have to be tired if you dig into why they’re ways to tell a story.

“Pine Arch” wasn’t written in tandem with the novel, though the force of the novel was still with me. I’d written a story back in 2015 (“October Film Haunt: Under the House” from Greener Pastures) that spoke directly to horror fandom and a mysterious “found” film, and I wanted to write another piece that overlapped with it a bit and shared its world. The trick was doing so while adding to it rather than repeating it. The strange media group Pine Arch Research will make another appearance in my next collection, and I plan to expand their operations a bit in the future. They are a bit of a mixed-media collective.

Me: I’ve always appreciated the level of thinking that clearly goes into your writing process. A lot of horror and weird fiction feels much less deliberate and often suffers for it, in my opinion. “Horror fiction” as “horror without proof” interests me. This statement seems to make a theoretical distinction between horror in real life and horror as entertainment. Do you feel like this lack of proof is what keeps horror fiction entertaining and fascinating? Are unreal elements, in other words, exactly what should be embraced by horror, rather than attempting to deny them by an emphasis on realism? Or am I reading too much into that statement?

Wehunt: I can agree with that. I think your question is touching the edges of the Weird Fiction/Horror Venn diagram. The monster in horror fiction is typically understandable (or made understandable by the story itself) even at its most monstrous, whereas in weird fiction there’s a leaning toward the uncanny and unknowable. But yes, I’m sort of making a distinction there between actual horror and fictional horror. The “proof” in the context my story provides is an email message vs. a phone call or personal visit. It’s not actually proof, and so does that make it fiction to the person reading the email? Just another veil of storytelling. So is the fact of found footage itself: Film is a fictional construct, but found footage asks you to believe it’s not fictional. Who can you trust? Walking up to that line, as close as one can to “Maybe this is actually really real,” is deeply satisfying and, to me, the creepiest thing.

Linear storytelling, meanwhile, will always be the primary mode. It’s what the largest number of people relate to. And while, yes, many writers pretty much exclusively use it, I’m sure I will many, many more times if I’m allowed to keep doing this. I doubt Homer sat down beside an ancient Greek campfire and started his story by saying, “I found this packet of letters from Odysseus in a cave…” It’s possible that one day I’ll look back at this handful of years as my “Meta Phase” with a chuckle. As long as it’s not an embarrassed chuckle, I’ll be more than happy.

Me: I definitely see more clearly how these metafictional elements are coming into play on multiple levels. Excellent explanation! In my last question, I called you a “horror” writer, although “weird fiction” in the sense that you approach the “uncanny and unknowable” is probably more apt. However, you’re also well-known in bizarro circles, and you’ve written about an overlap with literary fiction on your blog as well. Do you find it productive to deliberately straddle the line between these genres, or is this a byproduct of an altogether different artistic vision?

Wehunt: Do I find it productive to straddle genre lines? That’s a tough question because I think every answer is correct, including “maybe,” ha ha. I think there’s the possibility of having one’s own personal Venn diagram, with a readership willing to meet an author in their unique middle, and for that middle to reach widely. But for the most part, if a writer is labeled horror, they’re horror. A huge number of readers who don’t like horror aren’t going to come pouring over the cursed wall simply because an author injects A or B into the mix. But perhaps these dark things can go over to their side of the wall. Conversely, if one gets too far away from horror and writes an only “sort of horror” book, there’s the risk of alienating those readers who live and breathe horror. I love it all. I live and breathe several things. All a writer can do in the end is write their own truth, with their own fears and moments of beauty and grace and pain and hope. Whatever audience is out there will hopefully be drawn to that truth.

As for strictly horror vs. weird fiction, I consider myself to be both, equally. It will bleed one way or the other from time to time, from story to story, but I can’t let either go. I’ve been reading Stephen King since the age of eight, but one thing I never did in my childhood years was fall deeply into horror. There are reasons for that (income, non-awesome town library, etc.), but the result was I went a couple of decades not reading horror and not even knowing there was such a thing as weird fiction. I first read Aickman, Lovecraft, Blackwood, Machen, and all the other dead white men in the last five or six years. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t able to generate enough fascination to circumvent those circumstances and find a way to explore dark genre fiction, but I’m also happy that I spent all those years reading other things, primarily (but by no means only) literary fiction. When I finally decided to try fiction myself (after a very long time being scared to), horror was still there in the forefront of my heart. It had been waiting all along. And out came… whatever this is. This strange blood. It’s me, and I will continue to see what I have to say as I bleed everywhere. I’m having fun extending the figuring-it-out-as-I-go part as long as I can.

Me: Well “whatever this is” came just in time for me. I came from a similar background. I was a Goosebumps and Koontz fan as a child, then discovered classic literature and fell in love. Lovecraft, Ligotti and the rest I’ve only discovered in the past five years as well. Greener Pastures really opened me up to the possibility of a brand of horror that incorporated some of the more “serious” (for the lack of a better word) concerns of literary fiction. Disregarding any attempt to put a brand or genre on it, are there contemporary authors out there you feel a particular stylistic affinity with?

Wehunt: Sometimes an affinity, for me, can relate to what happens on the sentence and paragraph level. The musical notes of prose, so to speak. Chopin instead of Nickelback. Sometimes, too, an affinity can be very intimidating. I don’t want to claim a kinship with an author who is deeply established and admired. That said, Steve Rasnic Tem is perhaps my personal hero in the horror/weird fiction world. What a wonderful body of work he has given us, full of quiet terror and strangeness and versatility and, most of all, heart. His work speaks to me in a way I hope my work will speak to others. Annie Proulx is another, particularly her short fiction. A few of her stories creep close to the supernatural and uncanny with wondrous results, but even when they don’t, her prose is magnificent. And when I first read Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, I had a moment: This is it, this exists, the horrific can be woven into the mundane in a harmony that gives equal billing to each.

There are others. Daniel Woodrell, Kristi DeMeester, Daniel Mills, John Boden, Simon Strantzas, Robert Aickman, Damien Angelica Walters. But in the interest of brevity, my favorite affinity is a fake one: the spooky stories of Mary Oliver. Which, of course, I made up. She is a poet and, to my knowledge, has little interest in creeping people out or even telling stories with paragraphs, beginnings, middles, and ends. But the way she writes about nature and the human heart inside of nature is a part of me. But I often want to write spooky fiction as I pretend she would. Where the words don’t get in the way of the dread and the dread doesn’t get in the way of the words. Her poems are not terribly far from horror, to my eyes.

Me: Wow. I’m familiar with none of these, despite my long-standing intention to give Annie Proulx a read. This is just another moment where I’m reminded I have a lot of reading yet to do. Your mention of nature and Mary Oliver brings me perfectly to my next question: nature is always present in your writing. I imagine you holed up in a cabin in the thick of the woods somewhere when you write. Is this accurate? Ha ha. The natural element adds such a deep layer of mystery to your work. You mentioned the uncanny and unknowable, and I can’t help feeling that the natural setting in your work harkens back to a primordial past where the natural world was unknowable, and housed the pre-enlightenment gods and demons of our ancestors. Do you feel this way about the ubiquitous presence of nature in your work, or does it serve a different purpose?

Wehunt: For all my talk of living in the woods or crawling out of them to pretend to be human, I’m a city boy. But I must mention that more than a third of Atlanta is trees, well above the national average. It is sometimes called a “city in a forest.” There are many areas, including my neighborhood, where nature is right outside, a bit wild and unkempt. Invasive species of plant constantly creep into our back yard. And I think that shows up a lot in my work, this ready metaphor of nature rubbing against mankind, rubbing until places of contact are worn thin. It shows us that we haven’t really evolved as we believe we have. We’re just slower to react to the unknowable than we used to be.

I grew up farther north in Georgia, in a rural town near the toes of the Appalachians, and so that’s how the woods got into my DNA. I don’t have to be near them to be in them, but I seek them out pretty often, just for walks and, sometimes, the feeling of being in a cathedral. And this is the other power of nature for me, something Mary Oliver touches on in her poetry: the sort of atavistic religiosity of being swallowed by nature. The way the light slants through the trees, minced by leaves, the dust in the light, the quiet and the age and the mountains looming to my north. The woods can feel like God, or the decayed memory of God. There’s a passage early on in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, in which Tarwater’s great-uncle goes off into the woods to commune with God, and the way she wrote the scene is every bit infused with cosmic horror as anything Lovecraft ever came up with. So yes, nature has its teeth in me.

If anyone is interested in a deeper, more esoteric melding of nature and horror, I recommend seeking out Richard Gavin’s short fiction. He’s a wonderful author who is very easily pictured not just living in the forests of Canada but actually made of the forest.

Me: That’s exactly the sense in which I was attempting to describe the element of nature in your work. It’s one of my favorite aspects of your fiction, and I will definitely be checking out Richard Gavin. Here’s a rather generic one, but it must be asked: do you prefer writing novels or short stories, and why?

Wehunt: Thank you! It’s awesome when things like all those trees get noticed as more than just setting.

I think I prefer writing short stories because they allow you to try anything. Zoom in on a subject in a way that has never quite been done before. Go with a strange narration style. Write about something huge but only pay attention to one moment of one person on the periphery. A short story is a lot like a poem in that way, and I don’t only mean flash fiction, as would often be assumed when making that comparison. A nice six-thousand-word story can do a great deal. I usually don’t want to skim rocks across a pond. I want to wade in, to various depths. Or maybe I do want to skim a rock, but across a lake instead of a pond.

But it’s not that simple. A novel allows so much more exploration. It’s not just more story or more characters. There is more feeling and more examination. I’ve only written one novel, but by the time I reached the end of it, I was exhilarated by all the streams that branched off from the main creek (to continue the water metaphor). Letting them go where they wanted before coming back in a sort of crescendo to inform one another and create a final cohesive shape. Another way to put it is that a novel is like lungs that are allowed to breathe much more deeply, with all the attendant particles in the air they pull in. One thing I never want to do is write a novel that is a novella or even short story with a lot of expansion or filler packed into it. A novel should do things that a shorter story could never come close to doing.

I’m sticking with my choice of short stories, with an asterisk stating I might change my mind.

Me: Awesome. Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I’ve been impressed by your taste in music as you post your favorite albums on Facebook. Do you have any preferred music you write to?

Wehunt: You’re very welcome. Thank you for the wonderful questions.

I’ve loved ambient and drone for a very long time, to the point where I’m as likely to listen to it on a sunny drive as I am to pop or indie rock. This kind of music is perfect for writing because, as Brian Eno famously said, ambient can function both with our full attention and as “aural wallpaper.” When writing, I tend to listen to either very beautiful or very ugly ambient. An example of the former is Stars of the Lid (probably my favorite artist, full stop). An example of the latter is Indignant Senility. My collection is large enough that I can usually tap into any mood I’m feeling. The element of decay also resonates deeply with me in music and all throughout whatever I’m working on. William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops is a series of four albums built from old cassette tapes that Basinski realized were decaying as he was archiving them. Gorgeous sound art that truly haunts my words and themes as well as the mind that tries to make them.

Like many writers, I avoid vocals. They’re intrusive and ask the brain to pay full attention to them. But the human voice can be an instrument of its own, and there’s a lot of ambient music with vocals that really tap into the moods I search for in my work. A voice is necessarily human, and the best stories, in my opinion, must also be necessarily human. Grouper, Ian William Craig, Julianna Barwick, and others process their voices into smears or textures that are beautiful and ghostly. And sometimes old choral music really does it for me. It’s typically in Latin, so I don’t have to worry about wanting to understand the words!

I also listen to a lot of field recordings while writing. Chris Watson is a famous field recordist with many albums I’d recommend. But my #1 record to write to is a 1970s recording of a rural thunderstorm from the Environments series. Birds and insects are muted and driven away by rain and thunder. The calm is profound. Once I listened to it while a live thunderstorm wrapped around our house, which was interesting.