An interview with Michael Rowe by Derek Newman-Stille
Michael Rowe is an accomplished journalist and horror author whose work I have enjoyed for many years (ever since the publication of the two volumes of LGBTQ2 horror Queer Fear and Queer Fear 2, which Rowe edited. I was extremely pleased that he was willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada so soon after the publication of his novel Wild Fell. I hope you enjoy the following interview and all of Mr. Rowe’s insights. He, like many great horror authors, has the power to bring attention to things ignored, cast light into the dark corners of society, and take his readers out onto uncommon ground. This is an interview that continues the power of his horror work to bring readers into unfamiliar territory.
Spec Can: Prior to the publication of your first novel, Enter, Night in 2011, which was a finalist for both the Sunburst Award and the Aurora Award, you were known primarily as an award-winning essayist with several nonfiction books to his credit, and a journalist. You’ve now published your second novel with ChiZine Publications—Wild Fell, a ghost story set in Georgian Bay that has earned stellar praise from Clive Barker himself. How did the shift from non-fiction to fiction come about?
Michael Rowe: The shift had been coming for a while. My essays were becoming more autobiographical in content and more impressionistic in style. I wrote a novella a few years back called “In October” that was published in collection with two other writers. The book was titled Triptych of Terror: Three Chilling Tales by the Masters of Gay Horror. Aside from the subtitle’s hyperbolic elevation of me to one of the “masters” of anything, it was my first long-form fiction, running about 50K words. When I set down to write Enter, Night, I started out with the fear that I wouldn’t have enough story to fill a novel, and ended with me wondering how I had reached 120K words without being at the end of the novel.
Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about Canadian horror? How so? What distinguishes it?
Michael Rowe: I’ve always been fascinated by that question. To me—and this is personal—it’s been about setting the story squarely and unapologetically in Canada, and having Canadian points of reference with the expectation that the reader will go along with the story based on its own merits.
Spec Can: What can horror reveal about ‘otherness’ and the outsider experience?
Michael Rowe: There’s a great deal written about the “otherness” and the “monster” within when it comes to horror, but I also think that’s germane to good literature everywhere. I think what horror and indeed most speculative fiction does is enable the writer to shift and bend the boundaries of the narrative to reveal more texture and subtext about otherness and the outsider experience. But in and of itself, much of horror is often about bad things happening to ordinary people, which, by definition, negates the notion of any intrinsic “otherness” unless the story is being told from the perspective of an entity that is extraordinary.
Spec Can: Your novel Enter, Night explores a small town in Northern Ontario where difference is suppressed and vampires end up rising from the roots of the past and your newest novel Wild Fell explores a ghost story in a small Northern town. What evoked your interest in the small town environment, and why was this the perfect setting for your novels?
Michael Rowe: With the exception of the two years my family lived in the tiny Swiss village of Céligny, outside of Geneva, I’ve always lived in large cities. In the late-80s, my husband and I bought an old Victorian house in the small town of Milton, Ontario—which has since become a large, sprawling suburb, with no increase to its charm. We spent six years there, and I consider them to be six of my most formative years as a writer. Everything happens in small towns. I was and am entranced at the way the currents and counter-currents that bind people in small towns can be both beautiful and horrifying. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the lack of anonymity in small towns. Anonymity is easily achieved in the city. It’s impossible in the country. In Milton, I would walk to the video store, about a mile from the house. By the time I got there, someone would have passed me in their car and waved. When I walk around in the city today, no one I know passes me in a car and notes what I’m doing. The anonymity is very liberating, but as a writer, I’ve always thrived on personal impact and collision, which is germane to the experience of living in a small town where you are in close proximity with people living their own lives, all the while aware of yours.
Spec Can: Among other things, Enter, Night deals with Canada’s colonial past and the mistreatment of aboriginal peoples. I am pleased to see that you brought attention to issues that are often suppressed in Canadian history such as the horrors of residential schools. I was wondering if you could expand on this and discuss why a horror novel about vampires was a great place to explore Canada’s history of mistreating Indigenous people?
Michael Rowe: I can’t speak for all vampire novels, but with regard to Enter, Night, the central theme was parasitical consumption, and vampire novels are occasionally a rich source of metaphor. The colonial settlers came to Canada and took native land. What they gave in return was brutality: genocide, disease, brutal laws, and toxic Christianity that later became the residential schools to which native children were consigned after being ripped away from their parents. The purpose of the schools was to “kill” the “Indian” in the child, drain the child of the child’s identity, and turn the child into a third-class Christian citizen of Canada, albeit an abused, battered one.
Spec Can: How is cultural assimilation like a vampire draining its victim of his or her life and replacing that life with something else?
Michael Rowe: The metaphors just write themselves. That’s what vampires do. They drain you of blood and turn you into something else. The primary vampire antagonist in Enter, Night is a resurrected 17th century Jesuit priest who devastated an entire settlement of natives before being stopped the first time. The vampire had his own ideas about how best to colonize the native population. There are other varieties of parasites in Enter, Night besides vampires—the Parr family who owned the town stripped and mined it for its natural resources; Adeline Parr, the matriarch, stripped her gay son Jeremy of his dignity and terrorized the family; the town itself demanded a terrible price of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens. But while I’m not big on collective guilt, the residential school system in Canada, run by churches, is a stain on our national identity that shames me, on a deep level, as a Canadian. The collusion between the churches and the Canadian government that yielded that system is the very definition of vampirism to me.
Spec Can: The theme of repression was a prominent one in both Enter, Night and Wild Fell. What role can horror provide in bringing attention to social repressions?
Michael Rowe: Repression and suppression do two things: they isolate, and they create monsters. The isolation weakens the victim and makes them vulnerable, and hides any number of horrors behind a façade of propriety. Repression also bottles up rage and God knows what else which, when unleashed, is often devastating. You could write reams about the parallels between the way society makes monsters, and the way it makes monsters out of those who are already vulnerable and marginalized
Spec Can: What mythologies of the vampire do you bring into your work?
Michael Rowe: Enter, Night was a deliberate, self-conscious, unapologetic, non-ironic mid-century vampire novel, with crucifixes, bats, wolves, no-reflection-in-mirrors red-eyed long-fanged vampires. That wasn’t an accident. Finn Miller, the young boy who is one of the heroes of the novel, learned most of what he knows about vampires from the Marvel Tomb of Dracula comic books, the same way I did when I was his age.
Spec Can: Why does the vampire fascinate modern audiences so much? What questions does the vampire raise in the reader’s mind?
Michael Rowe: I have no idea. The notion of the vampire as a gothic lover has never really resonated with me, and that appears to still be the dominant current image. I like my vampires terrifying, and only seductive in the service of their vampirism, like Christopher Lee at the top of the winding stone staircase in Horror of Dracula. That vision of the vampire endured for centuries, and it’s my personal favourite vision. I really loved 30 Days of Night, which is a much closer incarnation of what I think of when I think of vampires than anything else on the scene today, even if the brutality was a bit jarring to me. I’m not a fan of vampire romances, personally, though I would never begrudge anyone their own particular take on what has now become known as “the vampire genre.” As to questions vampires raise in the reader’s mind, I think the eternal question is, would you really want to live forever and watch everyone you love die, over and over again? That loneliness is a very valid them to be explored, and it has been, over and over again. And frankly, “vampire powers” would be pretty sweet.
Spec Can: Is there a “Canadian vampire”, a particular style of vampire that speaks to a Canadian audience or from a Canadian perspective?
Michael Rowe: I don’t think so, in my opinion. Vampires are more or less universal. Again, it gets back to setting. A Canadian vampire would be a vampire in Canada. Enter, Night featured Canadian vampires by default, and I flatter myself that they’d pass as vampires anywhere outside of Canada.
Spec Can: When you edited the Queer Fear anthologies, there was very little gay horror available. Has that changed in the past 12 years? What has contributed to the change or why hasn’t it changed?
Michael Rowe: Queer Fear was the first-ever gay horror anthology. We didn’t want it to be erotica, we wanted it to be horror stories where LGBTQ identity was a given, not something injected for shock value. The intention was to break ground more than to create an ongoing genre. LGBTQ readers have always read horror, they just haven’t seen themselves reflected in it. I have to once again point out Michael Marano’s brilliant, beautiful, heartbreaking horror novel Dawn Song, which features an openly gay protagonist. Is that “LGBTQ horror?” I’d say not. But the inclusion of a character whose sexual preference identity wasn’t trumpeted, but was rather an ensemble characteristic, is the best possible manifestation of “queer horror” in its ideal form. I think we’ll see a lot more of this as the reading public becomes more and more comfortable with, and accustomed to, seeing more openly LGBTQ people in their lives, and in the culture. In the past, it was often the sexual orientation identity, which, itself, was “the horror.” This resulted in a lot of homophobic horror fiction in the past, usually accompanied by very bad writing. I suspect that if LGBTQ readers had found themselves being included in horror narratives the entire time, and not just as “monsters” because they were LGBTQ, the phrase “LGBTQ horror” probably wouldn’t exist, nor would there ever have been a hunger for it.
Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about queer or LGBTQ2 literature?
Michael Rowe: Once again, I’d have to say that the only difference is that it features openly LGBTQ characters in situations where they interact with each other and with the world at large as openly LGBTQ characters. Also, perhaps, the fact that it’s written by openly LGBTQ writers, and informed with an artistic aesthetic that derives from having observed life and time from the perspective of an LGBTQ person. But when it comes to that, we may be once again talking about notion of “the outsider,” at which point we’re back to talking about writers in general—so many of us started life as observers and outsiders, not necessarily in the mainstream. I know that informs a lot of my own work. I wasn’t always offered the choice between being an outsider and being an insider. The memory of that lack of choice lingers.
Spec Can: Where do you see LGBTQ2 horror and dark fantasy fiction going from here?
Michael Rowe: There will always be people who seek out LGBTQ horror and dark fantasy primarily because it involves LGBTQ characters. If the writing is good, and can stand on its own merits without the identity politics, I say more power to it. But I think that as sexuality and gender identity become less and less hot-button topics, we’ll see more integrated characters in the wider thrust of genre horror and dark fantasy fiction. In Wild Fell, there is the strong suggestion that one of the characters is transgender. To my way of thinking, that’s as natural as the character having brown hair and eyes. I’m no literary bellwether, but to me, the character’s identity was an organic outgrowth of the story I was telling. I suspect we’ll see more of that.
Spec Can: Horror and eroticism are often linked. What’s so sexy about horror?
Michael Rowe: I don’t personally find horror sexy in and of itself. I draw a distinction between “thrilling” and “sexy,” while acknowledging the possibility of an overlap. I think the themes of vulnerability and surrender probably inform a lot of that aesthetic. There’s a lot to be said for surrendering to a force greater than yourself, to wit, a vampire’s embrace. Being bitten in the throat isn’t sexy to me, but it apparently melts a lot of people’s butter. To each their own.
Spec Can: Many ghost stories open with disbelief on the part of the characters. Why is disbelief often a feature opening a ghost story? Why do we love to simultaneously believe and disbelieve them?
Michael Rowe: I think many people would like to believe the sprits of the dead could haunt them, but actually don’t believe it. Ghost stories are that marvellous space in between, where readers can enjoy the thrill of seeing in happen to someone else without paying the price themselves. That said, it’s sort of extraordinary to me that vast numbers of people talk about having a “personal relationship with Jesus,” as though God and Jesus are just some “dad and lad” who live down the street and could pop by any time to borrow a hammer and some nails—but they don’t believe in ghosts. Religion is a lot of things to a lot of people, but I suspect it’s only “logical” to those with very little inquisitiveness in their mental makeup. To my way of thinking, “faith” is belief in the absence of logic or proof. That’s what makes it faith. And in a religious mythology where an entity can raise the dead, or walk on water, or raise storms, the hostility to belief in ghosts is sort of mystifying.
Spec Can: How have ghost stories shaped your own history? What ghost stories did you grow up with?
Michael Rowe: One of my favourite childhood stories was Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” but the 70s was the age of the paperback horror anthology. There were a lot of them around, many for kids. I remember a book called Ghosts, Ghosts, Ghosts, which was a ghost story anthology featuring a story called “The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” about a ghost that appeared every Christmas Eve and flooded an English mansion, until one year the owner found a way to freeze it. That story stayed with me for more than forty years. Later in life, of course, I read the contemporary greats—Shirley Jackson, Jonathan Aycliffe, Peter Straub, Stephen King, Douglas Clegg, Sarah Langan, to name a few. One of the most terrifying modern ghost stores, in my opinion, is Susie Moloney’s The Dwelling.
Spec Can: What ghost stories informed your novel Wild Fell?
Michael Rowe: The genesis of Wild Fell shares an important central theme with both Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is the literal question of the protagonist’s sanity until well into the story. It’s the difference between a story where the ghost appears and shouts boo! and a story where the question of the ghost’s very existence is in question based on the mental health of the protagonist.
Spec Can: What can horror literature ‘teach’ readers, how can it evoke new questions or ideas?
Michael Rowe: The best horror fiction is excellent, enduring literature, and shares qualities with other excellent, enduring literature. What horror allows both the reader and the writer to do is to explore both darkness and redemption by staring both in the face and naming them for what they are. When the narrative boundaries are as flexible and permeable as they are in horror fiction, the ways to tell those stories, to examine the human condition, increases exponentially. When done right, it’s art. When it’s done badly, it’s as bad as any bad fiction, maybe even slightly worse.
Spec Can: Why does horror literature show such a fascination with the body? What does the body interest us so much?
Michael Rowe: The body is our first haunted house. We live in it. We haunt it. We are literally our own ghosts.
Spec Can: As a horror author, you deal in the realm of fear in the fictional worlds you create, but what about yourself. What is your greatest fear? And how do your own fears influence your work?
Michael Rowe: What terrifies me is the loss of the people I love. Forced loss informs a great deal of my fiction—loss of innocence, loss of sanity, loss of beloved friends and relatives, loss of lovers. In the film John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, which I covered for Fangoria magazine as a journalist, Julie Carmen’s character, a horror editor, asks her travelling companion to imagine the loss of everyone and everything he loves, literally “to be the last one left.” I think that would be terrifying.
Spec Can: How does the landscape feature in your work? What is the importance of place and is there a gothic potential in the Northern landscape?
Michael Rowe: I attended a very rugged, very macho boarding school in western Canada for four years, and it had a vigorous outdoor program. We canoed a few thousand miles through the Canadian bush during the four years I was there, and I recall, even as a teenager, being struck not only by the beauty of that wilderness, but also by its savagery and gothic isolation. We have our own Transylvanias—high mountain passes, vast lakes, stormy oceans, tundra, dark forests, and isolated small towns in the middle of nowhere. I would say that the seed of Enter, Night was planted in my mind from that experience when I was a teenager. I’ve lived all over the world, but Canada is my home. I consider myself a Canadian writer, and a Canadian horror writer—this country is currently the source of my material in a very natural way. That Northern landscape is my birthright.
Spec Can: In Wild Fell you focus on the potential of small towns to create their own myths and legends. What is it about small towns that inspire legends, that feeds them?
Michel Rowe: As I suggested before, I think it has to do with the sharing of the stories, based on the lack of anonymity. If a real estate agent and his wife kill each other with knives in front of their children in a city, it becomes a news item on CNN and disappears within 24 hours. If it happens in a small town, the impact is devastating, and the story could live for generations because it didn’t happen to “someone” in the news, it happened to someone to whom one is connected by flesh, blood, marriage, extended family, or maybe just civic interaction. But because it’s all contained in a small geographic landscape inhabited by people who know each other, and how to talk to and about each other, it’s written into the fabric of history.
Spec Can: In Wild Fell you describe ghost stories as “bridges between the past and the present.” In what ways do ghost stories bring attention to the past, to things lost and things forgotten?
Michael Rowe: The historical events that caused the haunting in Wild Fell happened in the mid-19th century, but the effect of those events reverberated across more than a century, and it’s up to the protagonist to try to figure out what happened, and to solve the problem before meeting a ghastly fate. To a ghost, there is no such thing as time, by definition. The events that laid the groundwork for its appearance may have happened 200 years ago, but to the ghost, those events are as real, as current and as present as what their victim had for breakfast on the very first morning of the haunting.
I want to thank Michael Rowe for this wonderful interview and for his incredible insights. On a cold, winter night, there is nothing like an author who can bring our attention to the cold breath on the back of our necks and the cold touch of Northern horror.
If you haven’t had a chance to explore Michael Rowe’s work yet, you can explore his website at http://www.michaelrowe.com/ . If you are interested in checking out some of Mr. Rowe’s work, you can explore a few reviews of his work at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/shattered-glass/ and https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/postcolonial-vampirism-consuming-resources/