The following interview originally appeared on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog. — The Editors
Mike Allen first made a real splash with his unique Clockwork Phoenix series, which he edited in addition to Mythic Delirium. But he’s an interesting and unsettling writer of dark, weird fiction as well, with a first collection out that’s beginning to get some buzz. Library Journal just gave his Unseaming a starred review. You can buy the collection here. Recently, I interviewed Mike about his work and weird fiction via email.
When did you start writing?
I’ve made stabs and feints at writing since grade school, but it was never a constant thing. For much of my youth I thought I was going to be an artist when I grew up, and I started out college as an art major before eventually figuring out that my passion lay with writing. (Though my preoccupations in art and writing were much the same; see one of my old drawings below as an example, heh.)
What drew you to horror and weird fiction?
There’s a broad reason and a narrow reason, both rooted in morbid curiosity and childhood trauma. The broad reason: I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the dark and the monsters in it. In fact, one of the stories in Unseaming stems from a nightmare I had as a toddler. This part of my nature metastasized permanently in the third grade, when our teacher read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” to us for Halloween, setting off night terrors that bedeviled me for years. Becoming a connoisseur of horror and finally a writer of horror made it possible for me to regain control over my own imagination.
The narrow reason results specifically from the intense adoration I had for J.R.R. Tolkien in my pre-teen years. I read everything Tolkien, not just his works, but works about him, and even the works of writers who were discussed in essays about and critiques of Tolkien. The late Colin Wilson, in his treatise “Tree by Tolkien,” made much ado about how Tolkien’s writing compared to some fantasy author named H.P. Lovecraft. In the Appalachian town where I grew up it wasn’t easy to get my hands on books by any out-of-print writer, but when the chance to read a bunch of Lovecraft finally arrived I pounced on it, thinking he was someone in Tolkien’s vein. And given what my first exposure to Poe did to me – oh, boy, was I in for a shock!
But following right on the heels of that, tracing connections away from Lovecraft the way I had from Tolkien, I began exploring the wild ranges of modern fantasy short fiction, which is where the weird thrives.
Your work can be very disturbing in a way that’s graphic, but also subtle. Do you have a good sense of when to go in a particular direction when it comes to the horrific elements?
For me that stuff is based more on gut feeling than careful construction: I’m really hard to scare now, at least when it comes to reading stories and watching movies, so I try to figure out what would get through my own defenses. Usually it’s not a matter of leaving everything off stage or putting everything on stage, but some artful combination of the two. Or put another way, if what you have seen is this horrific, just imagine what’s still waiting in the wings…
Where’s the autobiography in your work?
It’s there in every story, but it’s chopped up and recombined like Frankenstein’s monster with anecdotes I’ve heard, things I’ve read, encounters I’ve had as a journalist, and stuff that I just flat out made up.
Does your editing inform your fiction? And does it ever get in the way of your fiction?
It’s strange: the fiction that I pick for Clockwork Phoenix and Mythic Delirium is on the whole quite different from my own stories. I tend to write in two modes: contemporary horror or really over-the-top surreal speculative fiction. You’ll find examples of those in the books I edit, but also a number of quieter stories that seem to fall completely outside my writerly nature. I’m perfectly willing to showcase them but I have no urge to produce them.
Certainly editing a book can get in the way of writing one, especially as my projects, both as an editor and as a writer, keep getting more ambitious. But, I actually tried to put editing projects aside in order to focus more on writing, and found that the absence drove me nuts, just as going too long without writing drives me nuts. So my creative life is now one vast wonky scheme that has me hopping from project to project to project. Like Marcello Mastroianni at the end of Fellini’s 8½, I choose it all.
What drew you to write a sequel to your Nebula-nominated story? And was it difficult to re-enter that milieu?
Originally I had no plans to write a sequel to “The Button Bin,” but an email exchange with a film producer caused me to think about whether it could be expanded. The creative part of my brain started worrying away at the problem, and of all things, as I was listening to “Lux Aeterna,” known to many as the theme from the trailer for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, an image came to me of a man whose flesh was violently unraveling, like a spinning, flapping window shade, revealing nothing underneath but more and more layers of flesh, the stitched-together, coiled up skins of thousands. I knew then that the tale would have another chapter. Other scenes grew from that first seed, and my job, essentially, was to explain them: who were these people I was seeing, how did they end up in these terrifying predicaments? That part, actually, turned out to be uncharacteristically easy. I was on fire with the sequel, “The Quiltmaker,” from beginning to end.
What elements or qualities do you love in short fiction, personally?
The economy; the relative freedom to experiment and to deviate from commercially acceptable things (such as happy endings! or tidy resolutions, even); the sense of intimacy, like you’re sitting at the table with the writer as she spins a tale.
It’s funny: you’d think, as crammed with activity as all our lives have become, we’d value the short story more. Instead it seems like everyone wants to speed read long novels, without much concern for actual comprehension of the materials so ingested. I lack the ability to speed read, and I consider that a blessing, and also a practical reason to appreciate short fiction.