The Amityville Horror (writer)
Doorways Magazine's interview with Michael Arnzen
conducted by Stephen M. Wilson
Michael Arnzen has been a published writer for nearly 18 years with work appearing in a variety of diverse publications including: GAS, OUTLAW BIKER MAGAZINE, CEMETERY DANCE, and RHYSLING AWARDS ANTHOLGY 2006. Always the experimentalist, his writing has also appeared on Palm Pilots and postcards, creepy online multimedia, and even inspired the art film EXQUISITE CORPSE. Summer 2007 will see yet another Arnzen experiment come to fruition with the release of his Audio CD AUDIOVILE.
Arnzen has won three Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award. His books include the novels PLAY DEAD (which spawned a set of custom playing cards) and GRAVE MARKINGS, the flash fiction collection 100 JOLTS: SHOCKINGLY SHORT STORIES, and several poetry chapbooks, including the Stoker-winning collection, FREAKCIDENTS.
Arnzen was born in Amityville, NY, home of the horror house and the shark from Jaws. He presently lives outside of Pittsburgh, PA, home of Romero's zombies and the students (possibly one in the same?) he teaches as a full-time professor of English in the "Writing Popular Fiction" program at Seton Hill University.
You can learn more about Michael Arnzen by visiting GORELETS.COM
Stephen - First, as a horror writer, what are you thoughts on the supernatural?
Michael - I was born in Amityville , NY -- home of the horror house -- so I feel like supernatural speculations have always been a part of my life. As I've aged, I've grown into quite a skeptic. Even so, I try to keep an open mind, because I know that there is far more to the universe than mankind could ever possibly know or comprehend. I think what I'm mostly skeptical of is not the supernatural, per se, but man's crappy explanations (and hokey special effect representations) of all the things out there that go bump in the night. If ghosts and other creatures really had the powers we give them in our folklore and in our fictions, they probably would have taken over the world by now, you know? But I do believe in powers, elements, and beings that are out there that we cannot explain.
As far as fiction goes, the supernatural always calls the definition of the "natural" into question, and I like that. Same goes for reality. There is a lot of mystery circulating around us at every moment -- though I like to imagine that most of it is happening in the microcosm or in the great beyond, rather than on any human-sized, anthropomorphic scale.
SW - Do you derive more satisfaction being a successful teacher and watching one of your student's writing blossom or being a successful writer and watching your own writing skills blossom?
MA - I think of myself as a creative writer, so even when I'm teaching, I'm creating and growing, right along with my students. But teaching gets me out of my lonely little office and in direct connection with other people -- it's more immediately satisfying that way, because passion for ideas is contagious. So I love being a teacher. Witnessing a writer come of age and being a part of it is very satisfying to me; it makes me feel like I'm "giving back" to the world in some kind of positive way. Writing is similar -- it is a gift you give the world to some degree -- but it's harder to gauge the impact of your creative work on the world than it is to see a student thrive right before your very eyes.
I'm always happy to play a small role in another writer's growth, especially a horror writer, because I got into this game as a fan more than anything else -- so teaching is like being a fan of new talent. I suspect the pride I feel in my students is a lot like an editor feels when they publish the early work of a hot new writer, who later breaks out.
It sounds like I'm choosing "teaching," but I wouldn't say the two forms of satisfaction you mention are mutually exclusive -- one doesn't really come at the price of another. I do have to sacrifice a lot of time to teach when I might otherwise be writing, but then again, I like the stability of the "day job" of teaching. Knowing the bills will be paid lets me choose my own projects and I can write at my own leisure to some degree, without the reality of daily survival banging down my door, forcing me to do things like write greeting cards and things of that ilk just to buy milk and bread. Besides, helping others become better writers makes me a better writer in the process. I learn about mistakes and poor choices by watching others make them, and by helping them make better choices, I learn how to overcome those same challenges myself. Teaching writing is really an exercise in reading, ultimately, so it makes me a better reader of myself and others. So that's my long-winded way of saying that both are satisfying, and both feed into one another in ways I never would have thought.
SW - Poetry is not a lucrative art form. Why do you write it when you could devote all your time to teaching or writing only fiction?
MA - I guess I just like traipsing down the unbeaten path. Poetry doesn't pay much in cash, but deep down inside I know it pays off by keeping me real. It demands a commitment to language and a willingness to take risks and wrestle with the difficulties of sound and structure. Poetry writing is much harder than it looks, but at the same time it gives me more freedom to explore ideas because there are fewer expectations and conventions -- there's no given narrative form and the writer can create whatever form best fits the ideas they're working with. Anything goes in a poem. A free verse one, especially. So it's kind of like playing in the funhouse of language. I don't write many lyrical forms because I feel more constrained by the structure, but when I do, I find pleasure in puzzling out the rhyme and meter. And I also enjoy working in the tradition of some really great poets, like Poe or Lovecraft or Baudelaire…I feel more people should read great poetry by people like them, so writing it myself shows how much I believe in poetry as form.
Horror poetry ultimately gives me a way to explore the very language for subtle meanings and nuances in a way that fiction often doesn't. I love telling stories, but I also love just musing over ideas without the need for building character or cause-and-effect driven plots. Horror poems have the potential to be profoundly scarier than any story that way -- they can be more philosophical, more bizarro, more crazy. If a story doesn't make sense, no one will really read it, but when a poem, a reader sort of expects things to be a little challenging and out of the norm. Poetry is closer to dreams and the realm of the unconscious -- and therefore nightmares and psychosis -- than fiction. And as a horror writer, I think that's pretty cool.
SW - Do you have a favorite 'genre' poet? Non-genre (whatever that is) poet?
MA - There are just way too many to name...but I'll mention a few anyway, because I think anyone who is interested in horror poetry at all should seek them out. One poet I stumbled upon long ago in a college library sort of inspired me to try my hand at verse, because he proved to me that you could pull off being really weird with verse -- weirder than with fiction. His name is Paul Dilsaver, and he recently, unfortunately, died. I dare people to try to hunt down his work -- I think they'll be surprised. I've always been a huge fan of a poet named John Grey, who writes in plain language but always has a killer structure. His final lines always "get" me. I appreciate that. I don't see his work around as much as I used to, but he's published a book called What Else Is There? recently. Another poet I admire has won so many awards and accolades that it's almost pointless to point him out, but he's still one of the best, and that's Bruce Boston. I hand-picked Bruce's best horror poems for a book called Pitchblende a few years back, which subsequently won the Bram Stoker Award, and I've always felt blessed to be a part of that collection. So people should check that out. Other poets people should hunt down in horror include Tom Piccirilli, Linda Addison, Charlee Jacob, Mark McLaughlin, Wayne Allen Sallee, John Edward Lawson and the always excellent Kurt Newton. For formal verse writers, I admire the hell out of Bryan Dietrich and Jacie Ragan and Anne K. Schwader...damn, I could just go on and on forever, so I'll stop there. A lot of these folks also write horror novels and science fiction. They're clearly just people who love language, and you can tell that from how good their poetry is. And then there are the classic writers, the graveyard poets, the Romantics, the Beats, people working today in the mainstream like Sharon Olds ...argh, I better just stop now before I name ever single poet to ever pen something strange.
SW - Aside from your students and your contemporaries, where else do you draw inspiration?
MA - Tough one. I draw a lot of my ideas from daily life. I like contemplating the sickness and the darkness that surrounds us in the most banal of places, like shopping malls and so forth. And the ironies that surround us just crack me up. So... would it be cheating to say that the modern day reader inspires me most? I'm trying to communicate things with my writing, trying to get a reaction, trying to get people to think. Knowing that I might just change the way a person thinks about the world is inspiration enough. But my motives are different with every story and poem I write, so I would not say I'm motivated by any one particular agenda. I just like to raise issues in what I hope are new ways. Other inspirations include my family, of course. My dad, especially. He's a musician and a really smart guy -- and his sense of humor is just outrageous. He really helped shape me into the weird person that I am, doing everything from taking me to rated-R horror movies when I was very, very young to talking my ear off with stories about his own life. So I always think of him as an inspiration. And my wife, Renate. I like to push her buttons.
Hell, I think I like to push everyone's buttons a little bit.
SW - Speaking of pushing buttons, I'm going to give you an opportunity to push a few with the next question. We’re coming up on the 4h Anniversary of the start of America’s invasion of Iraq; as someone who spent time in the US Army, I wonder if you would mind making a comment on the current state of affairs in Iraq?
MA - I served in Germany during peacetime (I like to joke "I was in the big one... the Cold War!"), so I'm in no position to really know what it's like out there in the desert heat with sand and guerrilla attacks right around every corner. But one thing I learned during my time overseas: you lose a little part of yourself the longer you're away from your home country and the longer you're immersed in the uniformity and groupthink that structures everything military. I feel sorry for the troops, but I feel sorry for everyone on both sides of the war -- any war. War is the most idiotic social act ever invented; I firmly believe that communication and education can solve any cultural difference or power struggle, and so to my mind any act of war is an arbitrary abuse of power and a waste. There is nobility in being a soldier, true, but only in being a protector or defender. I don't have a lot to say about it otherwise, other than that I think it's a cruel conflict and that -- win or lose or stalemate -- I hope America will be able to repair its image and reputation in the eyes of the world afterward. And I hope that we'll learn our lesson, somehow, without having to spill more innocent blood on either side of the fence. I'm not one to pick sides politically either -- I'm pretty independent -- but I do side with the protesters on this one. We shouldn't be over there; let's end it soon.
SW - Amen!
SW - My self excluded, have you encountered any fans or situations that you would consider 'stalkerish'?
MA - Well, horror readers tend to be far nicer and saner than most people would imagine, so there hasn't been a lot of stalkery in my career. But there are always some crazies out there, in any random population sample, and I've had some strange encounters.
I'll never forget the time when I was touring in support of my first novel, Grave Markings, a book about a "tattoo killer." At one event, a huge biker woman in the audience came up to me after one of my readings and demanded to see my "art." When I told her I didn't have any tattoos to show her, she got furious, and started pulling up my sleeves and lifting my clothes, trying to prove that I was a liar. She couldn't believe I'd written so deeply about tattoos without ever having one. I tried to explain that I was afraid of the permanence of them ("writers like to revise," I believe I said in my defense), but she wouldn't have it, and started pushing me around a bit. That's not really stalkerish, but a little scary, even though I know how wussy that sounds. Another fan of that book sent me a cassette tape with him singing a song inspired by the characters, sung more than a bit weirdly to the tune of Edgar Winters' " Illustrated Man. " I think it ended with a line that said "I'm the Illustrated Man, Mikey, and I'm comin' to get you." I wouldn't call him a stalker, because I'd met the guy at a con once and he seemed sane enough to me. The tape was really a cool compliment, like any kind of fan art. But when I shared the tape with my friends, they suggested I hire a bodyguard and take out a life insurance policy right away.
SW - You've won several awards from your peers. How, if at all, has this changed your life?
I know a lot of writers who have won the Bram Stoker Award who say it doesn't mean jack squat. Maybe that's true for them, but not for me. You don't really see a huge boost in book sales after winning a Stoker, but there are many more incidental rewards you'd never expect. One is simply respect, especially from those who haven't read you yet. Getting such clout helped me get accepted into graduate school and, later, also helped me land a teaching job; it's also helped my case when I've asked for a merit raise from my college -- which is more than you'd see in any royalty check. And I'd like to think it's gotten me invitations from book/magazine editors. I know having a Stoker in my bio always cracks the publisher's door a little bit wider when I come knocking.
But beyond all that, winning an award from your peers is a HUGE confidence-booster. I approach a lot of what I do as an "experiment" -- and that can be risky because sometimes people don't know how to respond to unfamiliar forms or approaches, editors included. Doing a newsletter like The Goreletter can backfire if people think it's just crass commercialism or pure narcissism; for me, it's a creative playground more than anything else. So winning the Stoker for that experiment meant that I was doing something right, and that it was worth the effort to follow my own intuition about it. Same goes for the books that won, because I was consciously trying to push myself to do something new in both cases. Now I feel like I've got a huge pat on the back from peers I respect, encouraging me to keep up the good work. It's an expression of support and trust. Knowing that the other writers I admire, respect, and worship have the same statue on their shelves that I've got on mine...well, that reminds me that I'm not as terrible as I might think I am, when I'm having a bad writing day. And it also makes me feel responsible, too, for doing my best and delivering on the promise of that award-winning status, in everything I work on. I used to feel like I had to compete against other writers to get into books; now I feel like I'm in competition with myself, trying to write better than I ever have, and trying to warrant the reputation I've gotten, by virtue of having those trophies. But like they say, you're only as good as your latest book, so I try not to think about those past accomplishments too much.
SW- You mentioned that, as a writer, you like experimentation. Does this carry over into other aspects of your life? Do you have any strange kinks or fetishes?
MA - Fetishes? You mean aside from the soiled celebrity diaper collection I keep in my attic? Ummm...no, I better take the fifth on this one. As far as mad experiments go, you only have to sit in my classroom to see that it's a way of life and that weirdness is a worldview for me.
SW - Okay, back to “literary’ experiments -- talk a bit about the audio cd you're working on. What's the title? When will it be available?
MA - Audiovile is the name of my "pet project" right now and I think it's going to surprise a lot of people. It's a collection of stories and poems read to music -- and it's turning out freaking great! I've always tried to approach fiction reading as a sort of "performance," and Audiovile is my way of trying to do that with recording. It will be out on compact disc sometime this summer from Raw Dog Screaming Press (who also published my books 100 Jolts and Play Dead) -- they're a great publisher, always testing new ground with literary experiments and entertaining artifacts like this, along with publishing some awesome books.
Anyway, basically, we were getting a handful of requests for an audio book version of 100 Jolts, so I decided to make one on my own that would really be unique -- and much more than just 100 Jolts for the ears. It includes an array of different pieces, from an assortment of sources. One of my motivations for doing this is that most audio books these days seem to basically be throwaways: you listen to it once, get the gist of the story, and toss it. In the horror genre, there have been a few interesting CDs put out by writers, but you either get novel-length readings with very little drama, or full-fledged radio plays with corny sound effects. But I'm trying to do something completely different than either of these approaches. I'm trying to try to make an audio book that is worth listening to multiple times, one which will entertain on different levels and take on new nuances each time you listen. So I started doing funky musical structures behind my readings over the microphone and discovered that many of my short-shorts and free verse poems can function sort of like songs. Only they're not really songs, either. The whole thing is like spoken word on steroids. I'm composing and making virtually all the music myself for Audiovile, and I'm learning a lot about not only music, but also the music of language, in the process.
An excerpt will appear in the February edition of "Pod of Horror" over at horrorworld.com that people can download as an mp3 file and listen to. So far, I'm just having a blast creating Audiovile and it's turning out really eclectic -- full of humor, funny voices, dark images, and different musical styles. I'm really not trying to live out any rock star fantasies or anything like that, but there is some heavy guitar and bass in a few of the pieces that goes over the top and it probably sounds like I'm some kind of heavy metal wannabe. Oh well -- I'm making it all up as I go along and that's the thrill. It's all in good fun, but I'm hoping to do something of real quality, too. So far, so good!
SW - What about Exquisite Corpse? How did this project come about? How can people get a hold of a copy?
MA - A great filmmaker named Jim Minton contacted me out of the blue and asked if I had any poems I'd like to see adapted into a movie. I sent him a batch of things to pick from, and he had so many ideas for all them that together we decided to make an anthology film. Jim reached out to the indie horror movie community on the internet and eventually assembled about a dozen directors and animators from around the world to "collaborate" blindly on the project.
That's what an "Exquisite Corpse" is -- a piece of art or poetry made by many hands, when one doesn't know what the other one is doing. In the end, the movie turned out great, featuring eleven "mini-movies" in different media, based on selected stories from 100 Jolts and poetry culled from Gorelets and Freakcidents. There are claymation pieces, animated stills, digital ditties, and live-action performances, all bound together with a great musical score by Michael Mouracade and two narrators who read the stories and poems over the images. It's a lot to digest in just 20 minutes, but it's really unique for a horror film!
I'm very excited about it; Exquisite Corpse
is screening at various film festivals around the country right now -- and there will be academic presentations delivered about it at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts (http://iafa.org
) this March. I might be able to show it at World Horror Convention. It's not available for sale yet; that'll be up to the directors and distributors. There may be copies given away through my newsletter and on eBay eventually; perhaps we'll be lucky enough to get a DVD in distribution within a year. But no promises. For now, you can catch it online at http://www.exquisitecorpsemovie.com
SW - What other weird shit can we expect from you in the coming year?
MA - It's all weird! Aside from Audiovile, Raw Dog Screaming is also re-releasing 100 Jolts in a hardcover edition with some extras. That's been a really popular book, to my happy surprise. And there's a lot of brand new weirdness ahead: a big short story collection, called Proverbs for Monsters, is being published by Dark Regions Press in limited hardcover and trade paperback. Proverbs is a self-selected "Best of Arnzen" sort of book, including not only regular horror fiction, but also poetry, short-shorts, humor, and a few original pieces written just for this collection. One of my favorite artists, Matt Schuster, is working on illustrating it as we speak. I'll also be appearing in a number of anthologies, too, but I'm under oath not to speak about most of these yet. One of them that I'm really looking forward to reading myself is Until Someone Loses an Eye, the comedic horror story book edited by Jeff Strand and John McIlveen, due this year from Twisted Publishing. You'll also see me publish a new chapbook or two this year, but, again, it's too early to talk about them. If anyone is interested, drop by my website and please subscribe to my quirky newsletter, The Goreletter, for free at
SW - Lastly, can you suggest some good restaurants in Pennsylvania?
MA - Look for a place called Primanti's. It's a notorious Pittsburgh diner that's so damned good, it's now expanding into a chain that is spreading out all over Western PA and beyond. Order the house special -- a "Pittsburgher Sandwich" -- or just get the huge Egg Sandwich for something outrageously wild. Virtually everything they make has an enormous pile of cole slaw and French Fries on it. It'll drip weird liquids down your sleeve, but it's well worth the cholesterol spike and laundry bill.
SW - Thanks, Mike, for popping my cherry as an editor (and for the interview).
MA - You bet! You're doing good stuff with Doorways, and I think it's great that the magazine is so supportive of poetry. It's rare out there -- and so this is important stuff.
SW - Can you leave Doorways’ sicko writers (and readers) with one of your famous Twisted Prompts?
MA - Heh-heh…sure. Let's see, doorways...hmm…how about this: "They say eyes are the doorways (or alternatively, windows) to the soul. Compose a poem or story involving a character who has discovered a way to lock them!"