THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


PROVIDENCE TALKS: A CONVERSATION WITH JONATHAN THOMAS

by by Gillian Brassil

illustration by by Gillian Brassil

Jonathan Thomas has been publishing horror stories since 1992. Born in Providence and raised in Woonsocket, he holds a BA and an MFA in writing from Brown; the man is a Rhode Islander to the core. He has published two collections of horror tales: Stories from the Big Black House and Midnight Call and Other Stories, the latter published in March of 2008 by Hippocampus Press. This week, Thomas talked to the Independent in his living room, the barking of his three boisterous dogs punctuating his slow and thoughtful cadence. Such are the joyful oddities of the Thomas home, a den of bric-a-brac which includes a basement filled to the brim with pots, pans, jars, goblets and toy pianos.

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When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
I decided to become a writer in June 1968. I was in eighth grade at the time. It was one of the worst years of my life. I think for a lot of people it's the worst year of their life. In the last week of school, I just started writing stories about things. Around age 30, I started to change the way I wrote. I decided I needed to re-prioritize how I crafted a story. I started to use more colloquial language, to start using nontraditional sentence structures. And I decided to write faster, to try and write one thing every day.
Did you always know you wanted to write horror?
Yes. As a kid, I watched horror films, science fiction. From a very early age, I was drawing comics books, like I'd go see Gorgo [a 1961 British monster movie] and make a comic adaptation.
Do you still make comics at all?
No, not since I was a kid. Some of the first stories I sold, though, were comic book scripts, to Warren, a comics publishing house: Eerie and Vampirella. There was a really big comic books community in Providence in the 1970s. There was a guy, Gerry Boudreau, who at the time was selling comic scripts to Warren and, I think, DC. He did a month-long course on writing comic book scripts; I think I was one of two students.
Do you know what happened to the other student?
He owned a comic book store for a while but ended up moving back to Texas. He couldn't deal with our summers, said they were "too onerous."
What authors, horror or otherwise, have inspired you?
From a very young age, I was influenced by Ray Bradbury. And H.P. Lovecraft, of course; you have to say that one. W. Hope Hodgson. Some of the borderline gothic/horror writers: Shirley Jackson, John Collier. And I went through that William Burroughs/Gertrude Stein phase, like I'm sure everyone does.
Would you classify your stories as just horror, or do you have some more specific term to describe them?
Well, that's sort of a loaded question, because they're not just horror. But yes, that's what I'd call them, although maybe "weird tales" is a better term.
Well, so what does the genre name mean to you? What is horror?
That's a bloody big question. I think Gothic writers 200 years ago made a distinction between horror, which was meant to contract the soul, and terror, which was meant to be sublime and expanded the soul. But, hm. Horror is not necessarily supernatural... Horror horrifies! That's all I can say.
Is there a community of horror writers in Providence?
There are a few other horror writers, yes, but we don't really cohere into a community. It would be nice to have that community, good in the sense of moral support and other intangible ways. But it would also cut down on the time where we could be productively writing. It'd be a mixed blessing, I think.
You've done a lot in Providence outside of your writing; you played with Providence bands in the '90s: the Amoebic Ensemble and the Panic Band. What did you play?
Kitchenware.
Are you still involved with music at all?
Well, there's Septimania. I'm coming to realize recently that there are two Septimanias. One is a solo studio project involving as many collaborators that can stand having anything to do with it. Then there's the live act, which is a quartet these days. Septimania has become much more functional as a live band. I've got a basement full of junk and crap, and when it flooded, I took it as a sign. But right when I decided that my music days were over, I started getting offers for gigs.
Have you ever lived outside of Rhode Island?
Well, I lived in for Stockholm for five weeks, crashing with my friends. I don't think they expected that one. But apart from imposing on people's homes, no.
So Providence is in your bones, huh?
It's in my bones in the sense that it had a formative impact on me. But...I dunno, they keep putting up tall buildings. The atmospheric nature of this city is changing. There's a point where there'll be diminishing returns and then Angel, my wife, and I will just pick up and leave. Where? I don't know.
Are there any horror havens? Like places where there are a lot of writers? I'd think San Francisco or Los Angeles would have some of that.
Not really. I mean, the West Coast is certainly better; at least they have specialty bookstores. Seattle would be okay. But it's surprising--out here, in New York and Boston, there just isn't a horror community. Or it's just hiding, which is very possible.
What did your parents do? Did they influence your interest in horror at all?
My father was a doctor, and my mother went to school for journalism but also did some photo-engraving for a local newspaper. But their interest in horror was only casual, really normal. Although--and my mother denies this--when I was a little kid, my father told me that Dracula lived upstairs.
What's your process for writing a story? Do specific things inspire you or do you find that you can just sit down and spit something out?
Sometime's it'll be riffing on a newspaper item. Sometimes it'll come from readings, like a really dull book will produce a hopefully less dull story. Like one of the stories in Midnight Call, "Dan the Wheelwright," was inspired by a really boring book I read about Neolithic Denmark.
I do have an interest in obscure parts of history. I've written a few period pieces, including one set in Vermont in 1816, literally a year without a summer. It never got warm; they determined later that some volcanic explosion in the South Pacific changed global weather patterns and hit some places particularly hard.
Do you heavily research a lot of your stories?
I find that I do more research as I go along; I mean that the longer I'm a writer, the more important it is to actually know what I'm talking about. Just little details--I'll be writing and have to ask the question: Well, what was a bed like 10,000 years ago? What were their shoes like? Did they have fireplaces?
Maybe 50 years ago, it wouldn't have been practical to research all this; that would have meant weeks in a library. But now, with the Internet, it's a few afternoons' work. As a writer, there's no reason not to.
I'm noticing your Netflix movie on the table. What sort of movies do you watch?
Lately I've been watching a lot of what's called film noir, although I think they're using a looser definition for it than they used to. I had my Ealing comedies phase, also hardboiled French movies from the '30s.
Do movies you watch ever affect your work, even if they're not horror?
Yes, I think it's all helpful, just in terms of structuring a story. A story is a story.
Is horror becoming a more mainstream form? What do you think about current horror works?
I think the art of horror is still flourishing in film, especially the work of Guillermo del Toro and movies like The Others, The Orphanage and Children of Men, although that one's sort of borderline.
What do you consider to be your best story?
Probably something I haven't published yet. I've got another book due out in either 2010 or 2011, also with Hippocampus.
What are your long-term goals, both personal as a writer?
I'd like to make a living from writing--a pretty grandiose dream of glory, I know. I'd like to see the UK, see Crete. It just seems that more and more places are adverse to Americans coming, although hopefully that will change with Obama.
Has the present economic and political situation influenced your writing at all?
It's definitely affected stuff I've been working on. At this point I can easily put a character in a situation by having his house foreclosed on.
Do you think hard times affect horror writers' readership?
Yes. I mean, I think escapism appeals to some people all the time, but in times like this, a lot more people are seeking escape.
So Obama will be bad for business?
Oh, no. With all the work he's got ahead of him, there'll be great years for escapism yet.