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Photo of Mike Thorn and his newest novel "Shelter for the Damned" (2020). // Photo courtesy of Anita Jeanine.

“Normalcy, not harmony” : Author Mike Thorn speaks on his debut horror novel Shelter for the Damned

By Cristina Paolozzi, January 13 2021—

For many fans of fiction writing, the horror genre is exciting, tense and leaves uncomfortable impressions regarding characters set in everyday life. For Calgary-based author Mike Thorn, the uncomfortable nature of the horror genre is what inspired him and his debut novel Shelter for the Damned.

A story about a young teen encountering a mysterious shack in a suburban field, themes such as “suburban violence, masculine conditioning and adolescent rage” are explored through the protagonist Mark’s discovery of the malicious and sentient nature of the environment he has encountered. In an interview with the Gauntlet, Thorn speaks more about fiction writing, the horror genre and his experiences creating Shelter for the Damned

Thorn is a graduate of the University of Calgary completing an MA and majoring in English literature. Writing primarily in the horror fiction genre, Thorn also writes freelance film criticism and is working as a sessional instructor teaching English composition and Intro to Literary Analysis at Bow Valley College. 

A part of the reason Thorn is drawn to the horror genre, is because he’s also a fan of the genre.

“It also just seems to be where my creative impulses draw me,” he said. “I tend to be interested in plots that involve calamities or disasters of some kind, or psychological distress. So my debut novel is largely about psychological distress, and it’s also about the kind of ugliness that’s hiding behind the veneer of polite society — in this case, the suburbs. I think the horror genre gives you a unique ability to expose some of those ugly realities hiding beneath the surface.” 

Thorn also states that the horror genre allows writers to explore “unsavoury human characteristics.” When speaking about the themes Thorn delivers in this novel, topics such as masculinity, violence and the maintenance of  status quo are highlighted and complimented well by the horror genre.

“By virtue of its excesses, its extreme imagery and its unique tonal qualities, [the horror genre] has a special capacity to explore uncomfortable subject matter,” says Thorn. “I think by virtue of its nature, horror is inherently transgressive as well. I tend to like art and fiction that is transgressive, that is impolite, that feels unsafe — even offensive. I think that horror is particularly well-equipped to allow you to do those things.” 

Thorn also spoke about how he began writing Shelter for the Damned and how he was able to  incorporate his own analysis of those “unsavoury human characteristics” in this novel. 

“When I started writing the novel, I didn’t have a set of thematic interests at hand. Usually when I’m writing a first draft, I’m thinking purely about character and plot. The psychological nature of [the main] character was inspired by two pessimistic American writers, who don’t really work within the horror genre — Hubert Selby Jr. and Jim Thomson — who I actually named two police officers in this novel after,” Thorn adds. “Selby and Thompson tend to write about adults, so I was interested in the idea of a coming-of-age novel with an adolescent protagonist that echoed the kind of terror and psychological distress of those writers. When I wrote the first draft, I was purely just exploring that character, exploring his environment and exploring the plot.

“But when I went back and reworked it through various drafts — and it’s gone through a lot of drafts — I tended to notice that there was something really malicious and menacing about the masculine authority figures in this novel. The protagonist is a bit like the protagonists in some of Selby’s books or Thompson’s books — driven by a kind of violent ideation. [The main character] feels alienated, he feels misunderstood and he tends to react to [those feelings] with violence.” 

Thorn also spoke about what readers can expect when engaging with his novel and what he hopes audiences can take away from his exploration of these uncomfortable topics.

“I got to thinking, ‘What is it about this environment that imposes normalcy instead of harmony?’ That’s a phrase that Danny Goldhaber, the director of the Netflix horror film Cam used to describe the suburbs when I was talking to him about the novel. He said that the suburbs tend to impose normalcy, not harmony. And this idea of normalcy is very much in line with a limited, and potentially oppressive, view of reality. Our socially-imposed definition of normalcy includes certain presuppositions — heteronormative, middle to upper-middle class, white, patriarchal, capitalist, things like that. Those ideas weren’t consciously there in my mind when I wrote the book, but upon revisiting later drafts I realized there was something menacing about this idyllic environment of the suburbs that I wanted to explore.”  

Although he also writes some literary criticism as well as working as a freelance film critic, Thorn revealed what it is about fiction writing that he’s so drawn to and why fiction is his preferred medium of expression.  

“Through fiction, you’re safer to explore things in a more abstract way using the tools available through the fictional mode — so, metaphor, symbolism, imagery — that are less easily applicable to non-fiction writing. Writing stories is something I’ve always done.” 

“I was probably a weird kid,” Thorn jokes. “Instead of going outside to play football, I would stay inside and write all the time. I wrote my first novel, which was a very unreadable rip-off of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, when I was around 12, so I’ve always just done it. I guess you could call it a condition or a pathology or something.” 

Of course, with the COVID-19 pandemic still affecting many individual’s lives, Thorn also shares how the pandemic has impacted his writing, and how he has been able to cope over the course of the past few months. 

“It’s been hard, I think that’s true for everybody,” says Thorn. “I’m lucky that I have my teaching job right now. Just having something that I need to do every week, that helps mark the time and keep me on track to some degree. And, I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a couple invitations to write stories for anthologies. For me, having deadlines has been helpful. If there’s an imposed deadline, where I have to have the story done by a certain date, it helps keep me in line. Due to the scary nature of this reality surrounding us, there have been days where my productivity and creativity has suffered. But lately, maybe it’s the news of the vaccine, I’m starting to feel more motivated to write at the pace that I prefer to write at. I’m just taking it day-by-day.” 

Mike Thorn’s novel Shelter for the Damned is available for pre-order on JournalStone, as well as on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For more information on Thorn or his other works you can also visit his website, or follow him on Instagram and Twitter.   

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