Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The connection between one horror author, Martin Landau, and Haruki Murakami: An interview with horror author Peter Balaskas

Today I'm talking with horror Peter Balaskas about his new horror anthology, In Our House.

1) Tell us about your collection.

In Our House is a literary mosaic composed of eight plot and dialogue driven stories which reflect my influences, including Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and Edgar Allen Poe. Each story portrays common people placed in extraordinary circumstances: a lawyer must use his wits to escape a booby-trapped library suite, a dying gangster blackmails a Native American guide in order to locate a special fountain of health, a funeral director encounters the angry spirit of his predecessor, and a survivor of an apocalypse struggles to escape his prison: a boarding house that is not only surrounded by a sand tempest, but is also infested with mutated abominations that might hold the key to his lost memories. All these stories are connected to each other, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. What is that connection?  Only the reader can decide.

In Our House was featured on the New Short Fiction Series in October 2010: . It was accepted for publication by Bards and Sages soon after.

2) What are the advantages of the short story form for horror versus the novel?

I feel that the short story form for all genres helps the writer grow in terms of establishing and solidifying the character by tightening the prose as much as possible, which strengthens your narrative voice as well. In the past, I have always felt comfortable writing longer works, mainly novellas. Most of them have been published, like “The Chameleon’s Addiction” (which is in Bardic Tales and Sage Advice Volume 2--- and The Grandmaster (, which is slightly longer than a novella and fits the short novel format like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Mann’s Death in Venice. And for my second book project, I was contemplating writing my first full length supernatural thriller that serves as a prequel for The Grandmaster. But after much thought, I realized I wasn’t ready in terms of the scope of the book, the complexity, as well as my writing style. I was within my comfort zone when it came to the first person narrative voice, and I could have written the novel in first person and get away with it. But I knew for a fact if this was going to be part of a series, it would have to be third person/omniscient narrator. And I have always been weak in third person. So, I decided to work out my narrative voice and diversify my themes by writing short stories and maybe build a collection out of it.

This is what happened with In Our House. I made it a mission to write the shortest pieces possible and focus on not only the brevity of the narrative voice, but also harnessing that focus on character. I took a few pieces that I wrote many years ago---both from my graduate and undergraduate years---and revised them where my 3rd person narrative voice was strengthened with each passing draft. I created newer works that utilized what I learned from those revisions, resulting in In Our House. By learning the power of brevity for some of those stories, I can utilize that for longer works where it won’t drag or go off tangent. I feel more confident when I start my full length novel now because writing short stories helps strengthen your sense of character and utilization of poetics with your narrative voice.

3) There are many different types of horror from the visceral terror of facing the great unknown Things That Should Not Be to the more subtle psychological tension that unnerves a person pursued by someone all-too-mortal. What type of horror do these stories tend to focus on or do you have a mix?

With regard to In Our House, it’s a combination of both sides of the horror spectrum, with a slight variance here and there. Although “Duet” is more of a fantasy/love story, the horror aspect is the manifestation of Mike’s writer’s block, especially through some of the metaphorical “beasts” that he expresses through his poetry (an example of this would be Qeb, the ugly survivor of the apocalypse who creates something beautiful at the end of the poem). But in “Let Auld Acquaintances,” we go into psychological tension regarding an arrogant lawyer being trapped in a game of wits against a psychopath. With “Wash Cycle,” it’s a little bit of both where the reader faces the mortal demon of Don Iovino, and then witnesses the supernatural terror of the Fountain of the Snake. “Id”? The question is whether Greg Gordon is an actual spiritual apparition or is Tom losing his mind?

 “Blessed are Those” is interesting because the terror comes in the form of the Nazis, who make their presence known through the destruction of Sedan. Although it’s a poignant story between two new friends, the terror of the Nazis is always present from the bombed out village to the appearance of the soldiers at the end of the story. In “Crossing the Styx,” it’s pure terror of the supernatural, whether it’s benign or malevolent; simple as that. And then we come to the title piece of the collection, “In His House.” The abominations are hellish to the Nth degree. But when the reader discovers who they are, along with the unnamed narrator, we go into a different level of terror. And as far as “Touched” goes, in the lead character’s eyes---God’s eyes---we, the human race, are the source of the horrors that goes on in the world, and it’s up to Him whether we deserve another chance.

The differentiation of horror---the visceral of the supernatural or paranormal to the more psychological of the natural---is something that I explore many times in my stories. And what happened with In Our House can happen with future works as well.

4) Which of your tales do you find the most frightening?

The title piece, “In His House.” That was the hardest piece I have ever written and its source came from one of the most frightening dreams I have ever had. In the dream, I saw ALL of the monstrosities, as well as the house itself. Translating the monsters onto the text was easy and hard at the same time. It was easy because, visually, I could picture them. But it was also difficult; they were so damned repulsive and evil, especially Mr. Lyons, the landlord. From a creative standpoint, it was the most challenging because I wanted to do what Haruki Murakami did in his novel A Wild Sheep Chase: an unmade protagonist. By keeping that consistent without appearing awkward was incredibly difficult, but it helped me grow as a writer. And the fact I wrote the first draft 23 hours straight through proved the story was just begging to come out.

5) There is a common stereotype that horror authors must be tortured souls because of their subject matter. That's rather insulting to their creative potential. So, where do you get your ideas? Or am I wrong, and you are a tortured soul?

Actually, it’s not so much an insult as it’s a humorous stereotype or cliché that writers like to laugh at. Two of those people include the Coen Brothers, where they broached this topic in BARTON FINK. In that scene, Barton (John Turturro, whose character is similar to Clifford Odetts) is talking to fellow writer William Mayhew (John Mahoney, who is patterned after William Faulkner) about writing. Mayhew, in an alcoholic daze, asks quite languidly, “Ain’t writing peace?” Well, Fink responds quite seriously, “I've always found that writing comes from a great inner pain. Maybe it’s a pain that comes from a realization that one must do something for one’s fellow man, to help somehow ease the suffering. Maybe it’s personal pain. At any rate, I don’t believe good work is possible without it.”  Well, Mayhew patiently listens in silence, grins and then responds, “Well, me? I just enjoy making things up.”

Everybody has emotional scars, including authors of ALL genres. As far as horror is concerned, I have heard from a number of best-selling horror writers how they channel certain painful moments in their lives into their work, most notably Dean Koontz (because of his alcoholic father) and James Herbert (because of the poverty his experienced growing up in the poor areas of London). Edgar Allen Poe is another fine example of this, too. And then you have fantasy authors like Ray Bradbury who write horror stories because of the joy of it. Richard Matheson does this as well, especially when writing episodes of The Twilight Zone. Stephen King, from what I have read so far, writes for both the simple of joy scaring the hell out of his readers, as well as channeling his fears and painful moments of his life into his work. William Peter Blatty wrote The Exorcist to explore the concepts of faith through a real life exorcism that occurred many years before, but utilized a bit of his own creativity by adding additional creepy moments to build the tension of the plot until it explodes when Regan is completely possessed and Father Karras has to rediscover his own faith if he has any hope in saving the poor girl.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m a little bit of both Barton Fink and William Mayhew. Some stories I write in order to confront certain personal demons that I have, and there are some stories that I just simply enjoy writing. With relation to In Our House, it’s up to the reader to decide which is which. Or maybe not. Maybe just sitting back and enjoying the ride while reading the collection might be the best thing. J

6) What is the most mundane and innocent-seeming thing you've ever made seem frightening in a story?

Music plays an important role in many of my stories. I think the most mundane concept that was transformed into pure horror was what I did in a story that is not part of In Our House but occurs in the same “story universe.” With the gothic horror story, “Chamber Music”, I took the beautiful music of a flute and turned it into a weapon of evil for a serial killer, as well as a key to the salvation of the protagonist (who is a good friend of Mike Cicero, the lead character from “Duet,” which is the first story in In Our House). If people want to know more about this story and how a flute can create such terror, they should go to this link: ( This story was just named as a finalist in the 2012 EPIC Awards, so it’s one of my favorite stories.

7) It seems counter-intuitive to purposefully seek out terror. Why are people so interested in, as it were, getting their fright on?

Martin Landau explained it so humorously while portraying Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, especially when it comes to women. He explains, “The pure horror, it both repels, and attracts them (women), because in their collective unconsciousness, they have the agony of childbirth. The blood. The blood is horror. Take my word for it. If you want to make out with a young lady, take her to see Dracula.” I can imagine that could be the case; I had some interesting dates where I took a woman to see a classic horror film and….well, I digress. J

But I think people are attracted to GOOD horror (and I’m not talking about torture porn like the Saw series, or other slasher films) for two reasons. The first is on a basic level, people love the adrenaline rush of a good tense-filled scene that creeps long until it climaxes. This goes for thrillers as well, and Hitchcock was the master when it came to building the fright slowly within the audience’s souls. Talented horror writers like Poe, Lovecraft, Matheson, King and many others knows that the best terror is the patient, dynamic force that keeps the reader glued to the page until they discover what happens.

The second reason lies in the journey of self-discovery.  When people watch a good horror movie or read an incredible horror story, and they witness evil in either very obvious ways or with delicate subtlety, they begin to discover what it is that frightens them the most. Would they feel more connected to the protagonist? Or, more disturbingly, connect with the antagonist? Would the reader/viewer have the same courage to overcome the extraordinary circumstances that the protagonist faces? Or, would their darker natures result in them relating more to the antagonist. And if the writing is good, the writers have accomplished their mission in not only entertaining the audience and readership, but also make them think about themselves. And that is what I try to do with my own writing, especially In Our House: Tales of Terror.  


Thanks, Peter.

In Our House is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

1 comment:

J.A. Beard said...

Yes, Peter was very thoughtful in his responses. Thanks for stopping by, Alan.