Australian author Aaron Dries writes fiction that is both harrowing and moving. His novels reach into your guts and expose the dread even you may not have known was lurking there.
His path to becoming an author began as a child, but the determination to do so solidified when he was openly mocked by his seventh grade English teacher when he told her of his plans to be a writer.
“She got very quiet for a moment and then she laughed in my face,” he explains. “It was a small-town mentality attempting to breed another small-town mentality by diminishing ambition. She should should have been my hero. I knew before that I wanted to be a writer, but on that day I knew I needed to be a writer. I needed to prove myself worthy of not being laughed at.”
The experience reminded him, as he walked down memory lane for our interview, of the film that first caught his attention and gave him a taste for horror.
Dries was looking for a film to watch with his parents when a VHS cover caught his attention.
“It was a plain VHS cover with the image of a woman doused in blood,” he says. “She was looking toward the camera sort of despairingly as though she needed validation.”
The film, of course, was Brian de Palma’s Carrie, based on the novel by Stephen King, and he immediately went to his parents and asked to see it. They, rightfully he adds, thought it would be above his maturity and intellectual level to understand but finally relented and the three sat down to watch it together.
He didn’t quite understand everything he saw, but he knew in that moment that he was terrified and that he wanted more of what he was feeling. Horror had invited him into its terrifying, secret spaces and he accepted that invitation with glee.
Oddly enough, this delighted both of his grandfathers, who began recording films from television onto VHS tapes for him to consume laying a groundwork for his horror education.
“It was as though they had been waiting for their progeny to come along,” Dries says, laughing. “They would just load me up with films. This was the good stuff, but it was also the trashy stuff that they would record in the middle of the night off television.”
They gave him everything from Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Salem’s Lot to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and young Aaron absorbed each one in turn.
Those influences shine through in Dries’ work as an author today, but it would still be some time before he intentionally set himself on the path to writing that first novel, and another obstacle was looming on the horizon for the budding storyteller. It was the moment that his family, and specifically his mother, found out that he was gay.
Dries relates the story that one night when he was around 17 years old, his mother came to him and told him she’d sent his father to the pub to have a few beers and they had some time alone and she wanted to talk.
As soon as he heard the words, he knew what she was going to ask, and the fear rose up in him as it never had before. Of course, he was right.
She asked, very simply, “Are you gay?”
Aaron answered, very simply, “Yes.”
Over the course of the next three or so hours, they sat and talked and shared more than a few tears together, but his mother was determined to let him know that she still loved him. Aaron had reserved the television, a tradition they’d started in their family so there would be no fighting over what to watch, for the evening to watch his favorite show, Six Feet Under, and his mother suggested that they watch together.
To his utter horror, it turned out that particular episode was top-to-bottom, pun intended, all about anal sex.
“It was Bum-Fucking 101, and my mother and I sat there like shell-shocked war veterans watching together in total silence,” he said, laughing at the situation. “Neither of us could leave because if I did, I was making things awkward, and if she did, she was a homophobe. It was an hour of terrible awkwardness and when the credits rolled we both quickly said bye and ran!”
Despite the initial awkwardness, and a couple of tense years as his family adjusted to his orientation, overall his coming out went well, and Dries recognizes how lucky he was to have a supportive family. He has, after all, seen the opposite with other members of the queer community he’s known and even those with whom he’s been in relationships.
The example of his family has, beyond a doubt, shaped who he is today.
I have interviewed Dries twice in the past–once for iHorror and once for a special edition release of his novel The Fallen Boys–and both times we have discussed his family life. Each time we speak, I’ve always asked him how a man with such a happy, supportive foundation came to write such transgressive, bleak horror that often times deal with broken families and shattered people.
He’s never fully answered the question either time, but when I put the question to him again this time, he said he’s finally figured it out. The simple truth was that the fiction was never rooted in his family to begin with.
“I come from a blue collar family who loved like they had a million dollars even if they didn’t,” he told me. “They instilled values in my heart which I uphold to this day and which I enact in my daily life. I think that those fundamentals led to what I consider my day job.”
That “day job” is working with the homeless; men and women addicted to drugs and alcohol and who are engaged daily in a fight to survive crushing mental illness. He has seen many of them lose that battle despite their combined best efforts, and after a time, that work takes its toll.
“It’s very hard to watch people go through that,” he said. “I can help them carve the way out but it can be very difficult. Writing is my coping mechanism for that. It’s how I make sure I’m okay. It’s a respite for me in response to that work and the two are far more intertwined that even I thought was imaginable.”
This perfectly reflects so much of Dries’ work as an author. His brutal, unflinching fiction often points a microscope at things we do not want to see in ourselves, drawing uncomfortable lines of familiarity even within his villains, and in brilliant moments creating an empathetic understanding for why some of them at least became who they are.
All of this brings us back to that classroom in the seventh grade when a young Aaron Dries was confronted with laughter by his teacher. It was the day that he decided he could not ever allow himself to become Carrie White.
“I don’t want them all to laugh at me. I don’t want to be vulnerable,” he explained. “I don’t want to stand on a stage and feel as though I’m welcome only to have the pig’s blood fall down on me. That was the ultimate nightmare. I just never…I never want to be that and I’m not going to be that. There is a part of me that is this well of strength that I draw upon when I’m feeling not so great. And I know that in that well, there is horror. It’s the horror that was handed down to me. It’s the horror that was exposed to me. It’s the horror that I found on my own. It taught me to be empathetic to other people, even those who would bully me.”
“The horror genre is the most empathetic arena out there and for people to say otherwise is criminal,” he added. “It’s nothing short of criminal to think that those who indulge, explore, and create dark material are in some way a threat. If we’re a threat, we’re only a threat to those who feel threatened already.”
Such a simple statement that rings so true in the face of those who attempt to vilify the genre, placing blame upon movies and music for real-life violence. Those same people who make these statements point their fingers at the LGBTQ community as well, blaming us for the breakdown of society.
In the face of all of that, Dries stands among many as an example of the opposite. His work illuminates those dark places for all of us regardless of orientation, gender identity, or beliefs.
“Not everything I write is, on the surface, queer. Some of it could come across as quite straight or popularist, but underneath it all everything I write is queer,” he said as we finished up our interview. “Everything I write is about the outsider. It’s about the kid who felt like they didn’t belong. They wanted to think there was salvation somewhere only to find themselves in a tunnel where there is no light. Those are the artistic expressions that manifest as a result of where we’ve lived. To share that is terrifying. We don’t get to do that often outside of the creative arts.”
If you’ve not read Aaron Dries, you really don’t know what you’re missing. Check out his author page on Amazon for a list of his available work. You just might be surprised what nightmarish worlds await you.