If you’re like me, you’re always on the lookout for the next big voice in horror books. Books have their own special power where horror is concerned. Where a movie’s job is to show you, in graphic detail, the monster/killer that is after you. With a book, the only limitation is your imagination, and the horror novelists job is to kick that imagination into high gear so that you are consumed with the world they have created. I was recently introduced to the novels of Aaron Dries, and I tell you, this man is a master of that.
His novels are gritty, visceral experiences designed to prey on real world fears. The only ghosts haunting his prose are those that haunt the memories of his characters. The only demons are the ones embodied in the hatred and conniving of his antagonists. I had the opportunity to chat with Aaron this week and our full interview is included below. If you’ve never read his fiction before, I encourage you to take full advantage of the announcement at the end of the interview to get a jump start on experiencing his intense, claustrophobic trove of horrors.
Waylon @ iHorror: I was first introduced to your work by Lisa Morton, President of the Horror Writers Association. A fellow writer and I approached her about finding some of the up and coming voices in horror and we are both interested in LGBT voices, as well. She immediately hit upon you. She told us about a panel she’d shared with you where you talked about some of your homophobic hate mail you had received due to some of your gay characters. Is this something that happens often?
Aaron Dries: It’s only ever happened in regards to one book, my first. House of Sighs. But interestingly, I received multiple pieces of hate mail in regards to it. It caught me extremely off guard. And the whole hate mail thing is weird, to me at least, simply because there’s no gay sex scenes in the book at all, which is something I would maybe understand prickling the skins of some. No. It was just really angry subtext. I think that made them even more angry. Also more so because the true nature of the book, which I guess does have an agenda (an anti-homophobia message, among other things) doesn’t emerge until later in the novel. So I kind of hoodwinked them, I guess.
Waylon: I can’t imagine getting that kind of response to a debut novel. I suppose in one respect, you’ve hit a nerve and people are talking about your writing, but did it make you step back before beginning your next novel?
Aaron: It didn’t make me step back. It just surprised me, and I guess in some way, kind of pleasantly. If I wanted to make people feel all nice and fuzzy, I’d write something else. But it was an angry book. All my stuff is. And I was angry about a couple of issues that were important to me. That a handful of people had their feathers ruffled over House of Sighs means the book worked — and they were just unfortunate casualties along the way, I’m sorry to say. And the only people who I can imagine who’d be upset over the anti-homophobia vibe of the book would be homophobes. And based on the content of their mail (and yes, they were men), they were homophobes. I guess it’s not terribly pleasant having someone shit over your own beliefs in popular culture, and to some degree, the book is prejudiced — in that I don’t suffer bigots lightly. Either in life, or on the page. The book is about a lot of things, homophobia being only one element. It’s also about masculinity. I think that made their hatred burn brighter, honestly.
Waylon: I love that response! House of Sighs was amazing. It…I don’t know, possessed me as I read it. The characters were so very real and the situation was absolutely terrifying.
Aaron: That’s so damn awesome to hear.
Waylon: Where did the idea of number the chapters backward in House of Sighs come from?
Aaron: The shower. Isn’t that where everyone’s ideas come from?
Waylon: Well, all the best ones.
Aaron: I don’t know. I was just showering and BANG the idea came to me. I’d been really toying around with the idea of dread. House of Sighs is a very visceral novel, a real pedal to the metal kind of story. And nothing kills dread quicker than action, I think. And I wanted the story to be about inevitability, which is in and of itself, dread infused. So I needed a technique, or a literary ploy, to counteract the action. And then BANG. There it came to me in the shower. Tell the story from A to B, but number the chapters backwards – like a countdown to disaster.
Waylon: More like a countdown to Hell, and I have told everyone that who I’ve recommended the book to since I read it. Dread is a word I have also used a lot in discussion of the book.
Aaron: That’s exactly what the countdown is. Everyone has their own personal hells, their own house of sighs. The book is about being dragged into someone else’s countdown, against your will, and about how you would react. For better, or worse. I’m glad ‘dread’ springs to mind. It’s very hard to pull off. Certain books do. The Shining springs to mind. But like I mentioned, action can really break that mood. You need something unifying, some leaden anvil forming above the reader’s head that’s always there to keep the tension alive. And dread is a great anvil.
Waylon: You had a dynamic cast of characters in House of Sighs. From Liz and her dysfunctional family to the passengers she captures on her bus, but you took all of those relationships and turned them on their heads, never letting the reader feel assured of any alliance. You’re a bit of a sadist, Mr. Dries.
Aaron: (laughing) I wish I could deny it. But it’s true. On paper, yes.
Waylon: And then came The Fallen Boys.
Aaron: To some degree, I set out to hurt the reader. And The Fallen Boys, I hope, does that.
Waylon: If you’ll accept the comparison, your descriptions in The Fallen Boys might be described as Barker-esque. There is sexuality and sadism in some of those passages without ever being completely overt.
Aaron: I can search my soul to find a way of accepting that comparison! Barker is a genius! The Barker allusion is interesting. There’s something that I learned from Barker, and it wasn’t necessarily about how to be disturbing. It’s that language, prose that is, can be cloying. I think that’s inherently advantageous to claustrophobic horror stories. That’s what I’ve learned from Barker, and which is on display in my work.
Waylon: Once again, there is dread here, but it takes such a sadistic and manic tone in places.
Aaron: Very much so. And that’s very deliberate. But I think the sadism and manic tone only comes off as striking because of the delicate contrasts established. A lot of stories forget about that balance.
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