Exclusive Interview: “This World Belongs To Us” Editor Michael W. Phillips, Jr.
I’m afraid of bees. And wasps. And spiders. And flies give me the willies, while mosquitos get on my nerves. It’s why I may not read the new bug-based short story anthology This World Belongs To Us: An Anthology Of Horror Stories About Bugs (hardcover, paperback, Kindle); I’m too much of a chicken. But if you’re braver than I, might I suggest you first read the following interview with World editor Michael W. Phillips, Jr., so you know what you’re getting yourself into.
It’s pretty obvious what This World Belongs To Us: An Anthology Of Horror Stories About Bugs is about, given the title, but just so we’re clear, these are works of fiction about real life bugs; this isn’t stories of people being attacked by made-up insects, right?
It’s a little of both, actually. Most of the bugs are actual types of bugs (meaning insects but also spiders, worms, and things like that — I’m not a scientist), but they don’t always do what the real-life bugs do. David Simmons’s story “Glock Dookie” has a gall wasp, which is a real insect, but in real life they don’t get put in maximum security prisons with humans. Ladybugs are real, but killing them doesn’t curse you (like in Cynthia Pelayo’s “Snow White’s Shattered Coffin”). And some of the bugs are made up: Kay Vaindal’s space larvae in “The Seventh Instar,” the particular type of moth in John B.L. Goodwin’s “The Cocoon.”
Aside from having to be horror stories about bugs, what other parameters did the stories have to adhere to?
They had to be between 1000 and 5000 words. I’m not sure whether people wrote new stories for the call for submissions. I know David Simmons did, but I’m not sure about the others. The invited authors did write new stories.
Horror mixes nicely with other genres. It’s like chocolate in that way. What other genres are included in This World Belongs To Us?
I love the mix of genres in this book. There’s really disgusting body horror in Paula D. Ashe’s “A Confession Of Earwigs” and Felix I.D. Dimaro’s “To Them You Shall Return” (there’s a scene in the latter that really turned my stomach). There’s weird sci-fi / horror / social satire in Kay Vaindal’s “The Seventh Instar,” where space worms control oil executives and try to get them to destroy the environment, which is what oil executives already do. Bitter Karella’s “Honeydew And Cloves” feels like it could be a cut scene from William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, only without any pedophilia. J.A. Prentice’s “By That River Strange Things Travel” is more fantasy-horror. I actually had the authors interview each other and asked them to discuss “what is horror?” which was really enlightening. Beyond a vague demarcation between stories that are intended to scare and stories that are intended to disturb (which I picked up from Eric Larocca’s You’ve Lost A Lot Of Blood), there’s not much of a definition of horror in the book. “I know it when I see it” seems to work.
Felix I.D. Dimaro
One of the stories in This World Belongs To Us is John B.L. Goodwin’s “The Cocoon,” which has been out of print for over four decades. How did it come to be included in World?
It was part of the reason I did this anthology. I found it in one of those old horror collections that were popular in the 1960s: Things With Claws from 1961, which also had Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds” in it. It’s one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read, and nobody knows about it anymore. It got anthologized a bunch of times (Ray Bradbury liked it and included it in a few books he edited), but after the early 1970s, nothing. And before that, in 2021 I published an illustrated chapbook of Cynthia Pelayo’s “Snow White’s Shattered Coffin,” which is partly about ladybugs.
So, how did you go from those two stories to a full-blown anthology?
Well, I had those two bug stories, and I wanted to do an anthology with a creative theme, so I went with something that I had a head start on. I had to track down the heirs of John B.L. Goodwin, which is something I like to do (I am a historian by training and I love doing research). Once I had his nephew’s okay, and Cynthia said I could reprint her story, I got started on creating the company and crafting the call.
It seems from your bio on the From Beyond Press website that this is not the first anthology you’ve edited…
No, this is my first anthology. I did have some publishing experience, though. I run an online bookstore called It Came From Beyond Pulp that sells sci-fi and horror on Instagram and eBay. Through the Instagram page, I got to know Kealan Patrick Burke, who is super approachable. I invited him to Chicago for a reading and book signing at Bucket O’Blood Books And Records (which is like a horror mecca, and people absolutely should plan trips to Chicago in order to go there). I asked local horror comic artist Corrine Halbert to do a poster, and she really did a brilliant job. It was so awesome that I came up with the idea of publishing a chapbook with a new story by Kealan, illustrated by Corinne. I went the chapbook route instead of a regular book because it was something I could do easily and cheaply. That was “Distinguishing Features,” which I published in 2020. I printed 200 copies and it sold out in about two months. I followed it up with “Snow White’s Shattered Coffin” by Cynthia Pelayo, illustrated by another amazing comic artist, Vheto Gutierrez Vazquez. Then I did one that wasn’t horror, Lloyd Brodnax King’s “Stoopin,” which was a Twitter project in which he would tweet about what was going on in his neighborhood while he sat on his front steps, and inadvertently chronicled the gentrification of the neighborhood.
Kealan Patrick Burke
Since this is the first anthology you’ve edited, did you look at any others to get an idea of what to do, and what not to do?
I read parts of a lot of anthologies, and a few whole anthologies. I felt like I needed to do my homework on who was writing, and what kinds of things they were writing. One of the best things I read was Mae Murray’s Book Of Queer Saints. It introduced me to a lot of queer horror, and it showed me how you could have a collection of completely different stories with wildly different themes and tones, but all under the horror umbrella.
Now, in the press materials, you mention that you “prioritized having a diverse anthology” and then mention that “there are only six straight white men in the book.” But what about the bugs? Is there diversity among the bugs in these stories? And I don’t mean if the bugs are bi or Jewish, I mean are there stories about spiders and beetles and flying bugs and water bugs…
Out of 19 stories, we have three that involve multiple types of bugs (like grubs and cockroaches in the same story), two about ladybugs, two about butterflies (though in one they’re interstellar butterflies), and one each about twelve other types of bugs. The weird thing is that I figured I’d end up with a pile of cockroach stories and maybe a pile of bee and wasp stories — bugs that people hate or are afraid of — but it didn’t work out like that. There are cockroaches in Bitter Karella’s story, but they’re just part of a buggy society, and the only wasp, in David Simmons’s story, is a pacifist who doesn’t even have a stinger.
As someone who spent many afternoons watching Kingdom Of The Spiders and Them and Food Of The Gods during The 4:30 Movie‘s “Animal Revolt Week,” I know Hollywood loves making horror movies about bugs…
Man, I love those, too. I used to run a movie theater hidden in a strip mall bank branch that showed classic Hollywood movies on 35mm on Saturday nights. One Halloween, we did a double feature of The Beginning Of The End (about giant grasshoppers) and The Black Scorpion.
Nice. Anyway, I was wondering if there are any stories in This World Belongs To Us that you think would work really well as a movie?
Of course I think all of the stories would at least make good short films because I chose them and thus they’re excellent (I love all of my children, I do not have a favorite child), but I’m going to single out one story. “Bug Mother, Bug Mother” is Bert SG’s first pro publication, and I think it would make the kind of indie horror feature that I would want to see. I want Lodge Kerrigan, the director of Clean, Shaven, to direct it. If you’ve seen that movie you’ll know what I mean. Or maybe Justin Kurzel. The story is about the aftermath of some mysterious happening at a trailer park that gets written off as a tornado, but it’s something more ominous. The story is about poverty as much as it is about bugs. Growing up poor with no hope of anything better, trying to hold on as you watch the people around you succumb to addiction and disease. There’s no viscera being chewed, no bloody attacks. It’s just about giving up and waiting for the end. Maybe welcoming it. It was one of the last submissions I read, and it was one that made me think, “yeah, this book is going to be something special.” So anyway, I want to see that movie.
Cool. So, is there anything else you think people need to know about This World Belongs To Us?
I want to mention the cover art by Jacob Blanchet. I follow him on Instagram, where he posts as @pictishdreams. He doesn’t have a website or Twitter. He does these intricate, creepy pen drawings of buildings and faces. Everything is very stylized; some of his portraits remind me almost of Eastern Orthodox religious icons. I wanted something that didn’t look like any other book covers I’d seen, and I figured he’d come up with something unique and unsettling. And he did illustrations for the title page of each story. He sent me the drawings when he was done, so I was able to give them to the authors.
Finally, if someone enjoys This World Belongs To Us: An Anthology Of Horror Stories About Bugs, what short story anthology that someone else edited would you suggest they check out?
I mentioned it already, but if you haven’t read The Book Of Queer Saints, please remedy that immediately. And Mae is putting together a sequel, and I can’t wait for that one to come out. Bound In Flesh edited by Lor Gislason (who was a very helpful slush reader for our book) just came out, and it’s fantastic. Queer horror is so varied and astonishing. It’s the future I want to live in. And I just started Never Wake: An Anthology Of Dream Horror from Crystal Lake, edited by Kenneth Cain and Tim Meyer, and it’s spectacular so far.