Southern Gothic, poetic prose: Horror maestro Michael Wehunt
Before diving into this fascinating interview, check out Michael Botur’s review of The Inconsolables.
Southern Gothic, poetic prose: Horror maestro Michael Wehunt by Michael Botur
Atlanta author Michael Wehunt specialises in writing short stories so good they’ve earned him Shirley Jackson and Crawford Award nominations.
They take place in an Appalachia that seems to be the 21st century, though it sits atop ancient horrors happening in “American mountains, ancient things in a land we pretend is new.”
His characters are mostly relatable, working-class people trying to resolve personal challenges. While doing so, they typically expose themselves to terror waiting on the edge of their consciousness.
Wehunt has published novellas, novelettes, and two short story collections, and contributed to around 20 anthologies, though he only sold his first two stories in 2012.
In between interviewing Wehunt and publishing this interview on Gingernuts of Horror, it was announced Wehunt’s first novel The October Film Haunt, which is about a cult film shrouded in urban legend, will be published by St Martin’s Press, with Publishers Marketplace describing the book as “Scream meets Hereditary.”
While we’re waiting on his first novel, you can read the prose and probably agree: the writing is exquisite. Literary heavy-hitters are certainly noticing – Wehunt has earned endorsements from the likes of Paul Tremblay, multiple award-winning writer Steve Rasnic Tem and now Ramsey Campbell – who’s blurbed Wehunt’s new book.
As horror legend Nathan Ballingrud put it,
“As though sprung from the forehead of Zeus, Michael Wehunt has come abruptly onto the scene with the seasoned maturity of a veteran… If he’s this good now, I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us in the future.”
Considering the accolades, 2023 could be the year Michael Wehunt’s reputation as a writer of astonishingly beautiful nightmares finally spreads AS far and wide as it deserves – pretty impressive for a writer who never had any formal training, didn’t read any horror for years, and learned instead from reading the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Douglas Coupland Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers and Cormac McCarthy
He talks to Gingernuts of Horror interviewer Michael Botur (New Zealand) from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. Wehunt explains where his new book The Inconsolables has come from and why he’s staring real social horrors in the face to reflect “Anger, grief, helplessness…inconsolability.”
Southern Gothic, Poetic Prose: An Interview with Horror Maestro Michael Wehunt by Michael Botur
GOH: Your first book, Greener Pastures, was very highly rated in terms of digital sales reviews, although it came out with a small publisher. It had endorsements from the Horror Greats though, which supported your strong debut. So where are you at with your career? Do you still have to strive to find money and time? Do you have to market your own stuff?
Wehunt: I have a full-time day job, so I don’t have to strive to find money, but I certainly do have to strive to find time for writing, editing, marketing, and logistics when it comes to my fiction career. I feel I’m in an interesting place in my career as an author; in terms of time, I’m not a beginner anymore because my first story was published a decade ago. But I’ve spent a while away from fiction a couple of times, so that’s made those years feel a lot shorter than they are. You could say I’m in a transitional phase–graduating from small press to larger press. I feel I’m ready to see what’s next for me on a larger stage. I do have to market my own work and see that as part of being an author in our current era. My new collection’s publisher, Bad Hand Books, is very passionate and puts a lot of effort into promotion and marketing. Heading toward the release of The Inconsolables, I’m very grateful for that.
GOH: You have a long-term partner, you’re an editor in the marketing industry, you read a lot, go for walks in nature a lot, and in your own words, to live my life in a progressive, humanity-focused way. What’s your cultural outlook / who are your people? And am I right that some lack-of-pride (not quite shame) about being a white southerner bleeds through into your characters?
Wehunt: I’ve lived in Georgia all my life. I’m just outside downtown Atlanta and identify as a liberal, politically, (and just in life in general); Atlanta is a blue (liberal) island in a red (conservative) state, and “my people” are definitely those who have progressive values and support human rights across all income brackets, skin colours, sexual orientations, etc. My name is Dutch in origin; my dad is mostly Dutch-German, and my mother’s side is primarily Scotch-English. I’m about as white as a person can be (red hair and pale skin, to boot), and yes, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a “lack of pride” in that. I’m proud of who *I* am, but I’m not proud of what white southerners have done in the US, historically and even recently. As far as my fiction goes, I do like to address that sort of thing because I think it’s important to stare it in the face. The horror genre is good for that.
GOH: I’m describing you as underappreciated and unheard-of outside the US. But is that fair? Maybe we, in New Zealand, are just ignorant and behind-the-times. What are your thoughts about how far your literary reputation has spread?
Wehunt: That’s a tough question, and I wonder about this myself. In some horror circles, I’m pretty well known at this point, but in others, I need some more exposure. Largely, I would say I’m not yet that well-known outside the US. There was a wonderful reaction when I announced my second collection, posted the pre-order link, etc., from people who enjoyed Greener Pastures, but there were also a lot of indications that people haven’t read my first collection. Greener Pastures performed extremely well – far better than I would have ever expected before it was published, and it’s continued to be steadily discovered in the years it’s been out – but it’s hard to gauge how well-known I am these days. Being gone from the writing world and most of social media for a few years slowed down my momentum a lot, too, but “returning” this year has also shown me a lot of people a) remember me and b) have been really wanting a second collection. Hopefully, this is the start of an exciting new chapter.
GOH: You write beautiful-enough prose that you could be a poet – and yet you’re writing about people suckling blood out of mountains, wives and daughters turning into vampires. Why have you given your attention to horror? Do you have another writing life? Poetry?
Wehunt: Thank you for saying so! It’s one of my absolute favourite compliments. I feel like a poet, but I would never identify as one. I love poetry and read it semi-regularly, but I have little interest in writing it. The way I look at being a prose/fiction writer, though, my work very much has poetry in it. My intent is partly to write horror stories that are poetry, and it doesn’t matter to me that they’re in prose form or feature creepy things crawling around in the shadows. Not that I’m calling my stories prose poems; it’s more symbiotic than that because I want a fully functional, linear narrative that can appeal to someone who cares more about the plot than the words. I’m careful about how these two elements blend, and this interests me far more than writing actual poems ever would. It’s all wordcraft, which I love.
As for that old question, “Why horror?” I’ve been drawn to horror since I was about 7 years old, and though I spent a large chunk of my life not reading in the genre, it has always been a part of me. I love the unknown. I love the occult. Most of all, I love the visceral feeling of well-drawn creepiness and unsettling atmosphere. When I decided to start writing, it felt natural that I would wade into those waters
GOH: One of your novellas was set in the aftermath of a racist mass shooting and half of its proceeds went to the Southern Poverty Law Center; another story is set in the aftermath of a gunman shooting preschool children. What are your thoughts about setting your stories in these 21st century milieu?
Wehunt: It goes back to wanting to stare things in the face. Horror is such a great mirror to hold up to society, reflecting our worst impulses, our sins, our flaws and errors. And such emotion is tied up in these kinds of things. Anger, grief, helplessness…inconsolability. I think it’s necessary – and often deeply rewarding – to write about these things and hopefully, if I’m lucky, make readers think about them and look into that societal mirror.
GOH: The titles of your stories are like song titles. And you live in the region of R.E.M., a band which frequently honoured Appalachian and Southern folk music traditions. Explain – are your sometimes-difficult-to-read story titles an extension of the poetry within each story?
Wehunt: I’ve never thought of my story titles as “difficult to read,” but I think I see what you mean. “Holoow” and “Onanon” are strange invented words, and Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here is a mouthful. But yes, titles should be very deliberate, and I certainly intend for them to be extensions of the way my stories are written, in most cases. Some titles, though, like “October Film Haunt: Under the House” and “The Pine Arch Collection,” are more functional.
I’m sure there are readers who will roll their eyes at a title like Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here or “A Heart Arrhythmia Creeping Into a Dark Room,” but…I just don’t think about those people much? I don’t know. I love the art of titles and put a lot of thought into them. Titles can represent and add to the story in so many different ways.
GOH: Your stories are written in gorgeous and highly original poetry. Does that take a lot of drafting, or do you manage to lay down poetic prose on the first draft, or what? Does writing beautifully add hours to each draft?
Wehunt: Again, thank you! I wouldn’t say my writing requires a lot of drafting – I definitely do “lay down poetic prose” in the first draft, as you say. But that’s because I edit as I write, it’s all part of the initial creation process for me. Particularly in a short story, I’m discovering it as I go. I think of it as walking into a dark forest with a flashlight, and everything opens up to me as I creep forward. When that first draft is done, it’s really more like a fourth draft. I can’t really say whether this method adds “hours to each draft” because I don’t know how long it would take me to do it another way. I recently wrote a novel, and it was drafted in largely the same way. Maybe this will change in the future, and I’ll shift to a more outline-based method, but I still think I would write in the same manner.
GOH: There was a story called The Inconsolable in your first short story collection. Then you use the ‘inconsolable’ phrase in one story in your new collection, which is titled The Inconsolables. What attracts you to that phrase? It’s from the bible, used in connection with Jesus, isn’t it?
Wehunt: I don’t know that word from the Bible, but it could certainly be in there. I definitely have a tendency to write about sorrow, loss, grief, and those sorts of things. I’m fascinated by death, but even more so by those who are left behind after it, that feeling of sorrow that is so large, it seems that it will never end and maybe shouldn’t end. Inconsolability can come to be an identity of sorts, and that’s partly where the collection title came from. I wanted to make the adjective a noun, an identity, and then explore different kinds of inconsolable, not just those suffering from the deaths of loved ones.
GOH: Many of your stories seem to be around 10,000 words long. Did you have to say goodbye to shorter word counts at some point? And does anyone complain about you writing long stuff, considering some short story calls-for-submission still ask for 2000-word pieces?
Wehunt: I have recently tended more toward the novelette, with 7,500-10,000 words being my sweet spot. (More broadly, I love stories between 6,000 words and 12,000 or so. There are several shorter pieces in The Inconsolables, as short as 4,400 words.) I love stories in that range and what they’re able to do, such as developing a character thoroughly and spending time with them without overstaying their welcome or having a complex plot hinging on many elements and events. I have respect for flash fiction, but I don’t have much personal interest in it, for my own self.
No one has “complained” yet, and I hope no one does; it hasn’t crossed my mind yet to think of it negatively like that. I think as I went along, publishing here and there, I began to have the luxury of choosing where I published more, and I could delve into the themes and ideas and character exploration more in the way I wanted; word count stopped being so rigid in a lot of cases. “Vampire Fiction,” for example, was about more than the plot, so I felt it needed about 3,000 or 4,000 extra words to fully explore what I wanted to explore. That might not work for every reader, of course, but it’s the story I felt it wanted to be.
GOH: Your thoughts on internet/Reddit-based horror and Creepypasta, considering your 21-st century characters are frequently touched by horror through the internet?
Wehunt: Weirdly, I don’t read much Reddit horror or creepypasta. It was a little after my time. But I’m fascinated by it and have explored it to try to absorb the mood, the meta feeling, and the almost folkloric nature of it. It can come across as a delicious sort of found footage delving into imaginary urban legends, experimental narrative, etc. I have a deep love for found footage and often pay tribute to it. I LOVE – deeply, truly LOVE – this kind of thing. The way technology impacts us, how we interact with it, the power of cinema and visual storytelling, the creepiness of various types of media, the uncanny nature of so much of it, etc.
GOH: One of the recurring things in your stories is men worrying about their children and ex-partners. Explain; tell me about your marriage/relationship/parenthood status.
Wehunt: No kids, single but in a long-term (more than 10 years) domestic partnership. When various scenarios occur in my stories, I’m simply casting my heart out into different situations and trying to feel as those people might feel, in an attempt to broaden myself and learn and observe.
GOH: It’s hard to tell if there is a link between the supernatural beings in your stories. – these monsters peering in through windows and existing on the peripheries of people’s vision. Is there a Wehunt Mythos?
Wehunt: In most cases no, I don’t see the connection from story to story. However, in the last few years, I’ve begun to [link them]. Pine Arch Research is mentioned in Vampire Fiction [the first story in The Inconsolables]. Pine Arch Research is becoming more and more prevalent in my work. I’ve been becoming more interested in the Wehunt Universe, so to speak. The novel – which I can’t talk about yet – has connections to my stories… in the past, it was easy to say my stories were not connected.
GOH: Now they’re starting to co-exist. On the subject of co-existing, it seems to me your new publisher plays host to several other young talented authors whose debuts sold thousands – outside of the bigger publishers – and that they could be about to get major attention with their next publications, massively helping Bad Hand Books. Your thoughts?
Wehunt: Bad Hand Books was the only publisher I showed The Inconsolables to because I could see Doug Murano’s passion and his seriousness about being a publisher. It wasn’t just a hobby for him. He’s “in it to win it,” as they say, and I wanted to help him get there. If I were to ascend to a level of “major attention,” all the better. I think it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, each of us helping the other.
GOH: Eerie Appalachia could sum up your work. Are you Southern Gothic?
Wehunt: I’ll briefly say that I loved Flannery O’Connor from a pretty young age, felt naturally drawn to Southern Gothic literature, and am powerfully affected by the landscapes around me and the history in the soil here. I love the mountains. I love forests. I love the idea of those things, the fact that they’re not too far from me, that I grew up near them. And then there’s the political, reflective aspect of being a white southerner that I’ve commented on previously; thinking about that soberly and honestly is important to me too.
GOH: Where do people tend to discover your work?
Wehunt: I feel that word-of-mouth, more than anything, has helped people discover my work. And that’s the best way to be discovered, being vouched for by other readers. I don’t have a lot of time for social media promotion, but I do what I can, and the foundation of Greener Pastures has been successful enough that I tend to get engagement that makes up for some of my lack of free time. Being in several best-of-the-year anthologies and having some popular stories in publications such as The Dark help, too, of course, but I think it’s mostly Greener Pastures.
GOH: Of everything you’ve written, what are your favourites and why?
Wehunt: “October Film Haunt: Under the House” and “The Pine Arch Collection.” As I mentioned, I have a deep love for horror films and found footage in particular, and that comes through really well in these two stories…so as a horror fan and as a writer, I love these two stories. (And this shared story world is returning soon.) If I had to choose a single story, though, it would be “Is There Human Kindness Still in the World?” from the new collection. I love what I explored here, and I personally feel like I hit every note, dug to the perfect depth, and tapped into an eeriness that makes me proud. And the protagonist, Jessie, is dear to me. Across my entire body of work, the novel I wrote is my favourite, though. It encapsulates nearly everything I value in my work into one story.
GOH: Were the stories in The Inconsolables written as a batch, or one by one, or what?
Wehunt: Most of them were written separately, for a commission or simply because I had an idea, but there is also a conscious cohesiveness, such as having a triptych of stories that involve the Pine Arch Research group. So some of them were written explicitly to end up in the collection, even if they were first going to be published elsewhere. (For example, Kirsten Mester being mentioned in “The Pine Arch Collection” or some of the footage from “The Pine Arch Collection” appearing in “It Takes Slow Sips.”) I thought a decent amount about themes, connections, moods, and such.
GOH: Fellow Bad Hand Books author Sarah Read won a Bram Stoker Award… now she’s alongside you at Bad Hand. Also Eric LaRocca – who seems to have an impressive following. I assume Bad Hand Books isn’t a major publisher. And might not mean huge sales. So, what’s going on with these authors and yourself? Should we assume Bad Hand Books might be the next City Lights or a similar wildly tasteful indie publisher?
Wehunt: Bad Hand is certainly a small press and a new one at that. But as seen in previous answers, there’s a great deal of passion and business sense, and Bad Hand absolutely has the potential to be wildly successful. It’s why I didn’t shop the collection around to anyone else.
The Inconsolables by Michael Wehunt
- ASIN : B0C685VC32
- Publisher : Bad Hand Books, LLC (20 Jun. 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 294 pages
In his first collection, Greener Pastures, Michael Wehunt introduced the world to his singular voice–a poetic, resonant force of darkness and unique terrors. He returns with The Inconsolables, a chilling selection of stories sure to brighten this star of literary horror.
Inside, meet masterfully rendered characters who grapple with desires as powerful and personal as the monsters that stalk them from the edges of perception.
A man revisits a childhood game of pretend in “Vampire Fiction.”
A found-footage collaboration turns nightmarish in “The Pine Arch Collection,” which links to “October Film Haunt: Under the House” from Greener Pastures.
In “An Ending (Ascent),” Wehunt steps beyond horror in a devastating near-future elegy for living and dying in a changing world.
Readers have waited for years to discover which cracks between the everyday and the extraordinary Wehunt would explore next. His latest collection offers ten resounding, haunting, terrifying answers.
The Inconsolables is fully illustrated by acclaimed artist Trevor Henderson.
Michael Wehunt grew up in North Georgia, close enough to the Appalachians to feel them but not quite easily see them. There were woods, and woodsmoke, and warmth. He did not make it far when he left, falling sixty miles south to the lost city of Atlanta, where he lives today, with fewer woods but still many trees. He writes. He reads. Robert Aickman fidgets next to Mary Oliver on his favorite bookshelf.
His short fiction has appeared in many places, including multiple best-of anthologies. His debut collection, Greener Pastures, was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, shortlisted for the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts’ Crawford Award, and published in Spain, where it garnered nominations for the Premio Ignotus and Premio Amaltea, winning the latter. It is available from Apex Publications. He is currently at work on his first novel and preparing his second collection for publication.
Michael is represented by Ron Eckel at CookeMcDermid Agency.
Michael Botur was the first NZ winner of the Australasian Horror Writers Association Robert N Stephenson Short Story & Flash Fiction Competition. https://nzshortstories.com/ Botur is crowdfunding for his second horror collection and would really appreciate your donations https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/lets-raise-dollar2500-to-launch-the-best-horror.