Though it’s his fourth collection of short stories, and eighth book overall, in the following email interview, writer Richard Thomas says he thinks Spontaneous Human Combustion: Stories (hardcover, paperback, Kindle, audiobook) — a collection of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, new-weird, etc. — is the best place to start exploring his unique oeuvre.
To start, is there a theme to the stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion, something that connects them, narratively or tonally or subject-wise?
Yes, there is. When putting this together I thought about what themes and threads run through my work. The title of this collection is more about the spontaneous Human combustion, than the spontaneous human Combustion. It’s the characters struggling to be more human, the humanity in their lives, to find meaning, and often, what it means to be more than human, to go beyond that into the uncanny, the weird, the monstrous. It’s not about bursting into flames, though if you’ve seen recent films like Saint Maud, metaphorically, yes, it is about that for sure.
So did you start out with this theme or did you realize there was a theme forming and just ran with it?
I think this theme is something that has emerged from my writing over the course of my career. And especially the last four years, as I’ve been trying to put more hope into my writing, to be less bleak. I want the reader to be immersed in the journey, the struggle, but come out the other side intact, if a bit roughed up. Chuck Palahniuk says to, “Teach me something, make me laugh, and then break my heart.” There aren’t a ton of laughs in my stories (some, yes, such as “In His House”) so you could swap out laughs for scare me, or unsettle me. But the rest of that quote? Yes, definitely trying to do that.
Aside from having to fit the theme what other parameters did the story have to follow?
Mostly it was me looking at the best work in my career over the last four years and then selecting the stories that best fit that theme, across genres: fantasy, sci-fi, horror, new-weird, you name it. When putting it together, I tried to start with a great story, and end with the best, and then mix up length, tone, genre, and darkness. It’s a dance we do, a 14-course meal, an orchestral movement — I want there to be flow, with peaks and valleys, ups and downs, horror and inspiration.
You basically just answered this, but I’ll ask anyway, it’s what I do: What genres do the stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion cover?
While most people think of me as a horror author, this collection is probably closer to new-weird, with a mix of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, magical realism, transgressive, neo-noir, Southern gothic, and literary fiction. Most of my work is hybrid or slipstream anyway: maximalist, surreal at times, sliding between one genre and another.
You’ve written three novels [Disintegration, Breaker, and Transubstantiate], three short story collections [Staring Into The Abyss, Herniated Roots, and Tribulations], and a novella [The Soul Standard]. Are any of the stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion connected to any of your previous work?
The only connection I can think of is that I quite often set stories in my old apartment in Wicker Park, Chicago. So there are a few in here that do tap into that vibe, such as “Open Spaces.” So, Chicago as a backdrop is one element, and then I do write about cities and winter a lot too, again, based on my location. I tend to have unreliable narrators, and at times, unlikable narrators. The maximalist style for sure, heavy setting, emotions, and an ending with change, denouement — that epiphany and understanding.
Speaking of your other writings, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on any of the stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion but not on anything else you’ve written?
There are definitely a number of authors that influence my work: Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, Livia Llewellyn, AC Wise, Gabino Iglesias, Priya Sharma, China Mieville, and many others. You can see the effect, for example, of Brian’s novella The Warren, and Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation, on my work in general, and specifically on my novelette at the end, “Ring Of Fire.” Authors in the new-weird and horror genres often influence my work.
How about non-literary influences; were any of the stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I think a good amount of my writing in the last two years has been influenced by a few television shows, such as Black Mirror and Tales From The Loop. I’m also a big fan of A24 films, so quite a few of these films contributed to my work: Hereditary, The Witch, Under The Skin, Enemy, Ex Machina, A Ghost Story, etc. You can see the influence in the tone, the weirdness, the endings, etc. Black Mirror seeps into “Open Waters,” there is some Lost Highway that works into “Requital,” The Ritual and A Dark Song in “Repent,” Stephen King’s The Dark Tower in “Saudade,” Lovecraft in general with “In His House,” etc.
Along with your own writing, you’ve also edited or co-edited four anthologies: The New Black, Exigencies, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and Burnt Tongues, and have worked as the Editor-In-Chief of both Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine. How do you think editing and curating other people’s work influenced your writing, and specifically the stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion?
If you’ve never read the slush for a magazine or journal I highly recommend it. I’ve learned so much over the years by editing and running a press, and magazine. I broadened my horizons reading globally, men and women, across cultures, orientation, POV, mythology…you name it. It also really pushed me to do better work, to never settle for the first option, to dig deeper, to put more of myself into my work, to really leave it all on the page. I see what I’m up against, what I need to do in order to not just write a good story, but to really try and write something special, that will stay with my readers. It’s not easy. I try to write from a place of authority, from emotions that are real, speaking universal truths, in order to connect with my audience. I’m a bit of a method writer, and so I want my writing, my protagonist, and the reader to all be very close to each other, for this to be an intimate experience, for readers to trust me. I hope I can deliver on those expectations. If I’m not writing something that makes me feel vulnerable, exposed, uncertain, and / or nervous then I probably haven’t gone far enough.
As you know, Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Do you think any of the stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion could work really well as movies?
We’ve actually had some interest in film rights already.
Obviously, I lean towards the longest story, “Ring Of Fire,” as it has the most meat on the bone. In addition, the literary influences with that story there is a strong Ex Machina and Moon vibe going on here, so that one for sure. I also think the weird clown story, “A Caged Bird Sings In A Darkness Of Its Own Creation,” could be expanded nicely into a film. “Saudade” has an epic saga feel to it, that Dark Tower vibe, and “Hiraeth” could be that interesting mix of fantasy and gritty reality, something like Enemy. I tend to write my stories in a cinematic way, I can see it unfold, like in a film, the visions I have coming to me as if shot and directed and acted. In fact, I often “cast” my stories before starting. I’m always conscious of setting and imagery in my work, being a maximalist, so I think that would translate nicely to the big screen. And by working towards an emotional ending, that might play out well, too.
It’s been my experience that short stories collection can be a good way to get to know a writer…but not always. Do you think the stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion are a good representation of your style?
Most definitely. I think there is some range in here, and that this is probably some of my best work to date, definitely the best collection I’ve put together, ever. Definitely a good representation of my style. I mean, when Chuck Palahniuk says, “In range alone, Richard Thomas is boundless. He is Lovecraft. He is Bradbury. He is Gaiman,” I think I’ve done everything I can to connect and have impact with my work. That blurb meant the world to me.
Given that, if someone enjoys Spontaneous Human Combustion, which of your short story collections would you suggest they read next, and then, once they’ve read that, which of your novels would you recommend?
Really, the only other collection I think that’s worth looking at is my last one, Tribulations. There are some fun stories in there, some of my earlier work, but a nice mix of genres and tone. My novels are currently out of print, but we’re working on getting them back into print. When that happens, for sure Disintegration, and if that works for you, Breaker. Disintegration is a mix of Falling Down and Dexter, whereas Breaker is a blend of The Green Mile, To Kill A Mocking Bird, Of Mice And Men, and Leon The Professional.