Since "Thumbprint" is partially based on current events, was this the type of story that you heard on the news and you felt "I must write this story..." or is it more along the lines that you were looking for a compelling story to write and this is what turned up?
"Thumbprint" was the first story I wrote, post GHOSTS, that felt fresh, that excited me enough to finish... I think, in part, because I had never written a story with a convincing female lead. All of the stories in GHOSTS - and my novel - were about troubled, morally adrift boys and men. What I responded to, what led me to tell this particular story, was the chance to explore this very angry haunted woman, to get inside Mal Grennan's head and find out how she felt about the things she had done in Iraq. So, no, I didn't decide to write about Abu Ghraib and then build a story around that subject. I decided to write about Mal, and it happened that Mal had served in Abu Ghraib.
How do you think the Iraq War has affected the horror genre?
For one thing, we've seen a whole avalanche of movies often referred to as torture-porn: flicks like Hostel and Saw. I think those films are pretty obviously a reaction to what's been going on in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, and a shared cultural fear that America might have done some things in the last few years, in the name of self-preservation, that will come back to bite us later. We don't want to be torturers, and suddenly we are.
You see this, though, throughout pop culture history. In the fifties, when people were afraid of being infiltrated by the communists, you had stories about invasion: Body Snatchers and The Thing. Fears of atomic weapons and atomic power provided the fuel for movies like THEM! and books like On the Beach. In the Seventies, you had Charlie Manson, so it was only natural you'd have films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When you watched the evening news, you saw naked babies with Napalm burns, and soldiers covered in their own blood, so it made sense that stories and films would also correspondingly become more violent and gory. Fiction is always a tool for grappling with questions that frighten and discomfit us, questions with difficult answers, or maybe no answers at all.
You've written your fair share of supernatural horror stories but that's not the case with "Thumbprint". How do you decide whether to include or not include the supernatural in your stories?
I always work from concept first. I need an idea that excites me, an absurd or frightening or unexpected what if to explore. Such as, what if someone loved the movies so much that they kept going to them after they died? Or what if you started getting letters from some mysterious person, blank letters, nothing on them except a single black thumbprint? How scary would that be? And so I usually know before I go into a story, whether it has a supernatural element or not, because it's right there in the idea.
That's easy. It has to be scary.
Having written both novels and short stories, which format do you prefer?
I don't really have a preference. My attitude is that a story shouldn't go on one sentence longer than it needs to. I don't care whether it takes a year to write or an evening, whether it's a movie, a novel, a short story, or a comic book. I always want the same things out of a story. I want a character to explore, someone with secrets and regrets, someone struggling to become a better person, someone with something to confess. And I also want the narrative to rush the reader along toward some powerful final moment, without wasting their time, and without making them feel like what they're doing is work and it would really be more fun to turn on the TV. That's what I'm after every time I write, and I'm content to let a story tell me whether it ought to be thirty pages or three hundred.
What in your opinion is the advantage of the short story format, at least when it comes to the horror genre and how you write?
In a short story, you've only got thirty pages to operate in, and so by necessity much is left to the reader's imagination. And in horror especially, the things the reader imagines are often much worse than anything the writer could come up with. The voice screaming behind the door is dreadful because you don't know what's happening to that person. The thing moving in the darkness is much less terrifying once it moves into the light.
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