Shaun Meeks was born and raised in Toronto, and still lives there with his partner, Mina LaFleur. They run the business L'Atelier de LaFleur, which specializes in hand-finished couture corsetry and accoutrements. Shaun was formerly a semi-pro skateboarder. Now he enjoys sharing his nightmares in his writing—and scaring the hell out of his readers! His short stories have been published in many magazines and anthologies, including Haunted Path, Dark Eclipse, Zombies Gone Wild, A Feast of Frights, Insidious Assassins, Someone Wicked, Zippered Flesh 2, and Zippered Flesh 3. He is also the author of the books The Gate at Lake Drive, Down on the Farm, and Earthbound and Down.
Thanks, Shaun, for hanging out with us for a few minutes. To say you have a passion for horror is an understatement. What was the first horror novel that you found truly frightening?
I was in grade four, and I went to the corner store near my house to pick up some new comics. But when I saw this book cover—all silver, gray, and black with a faceless head on it—I had to pick it up. I already knew who Stephen King was, but I had never heard of The Shining before. The movie was something I hadn't even known about, but when I read what the book was about, I was sold and luckily I had enough money in my pocket to buy it.
I started to read it, tearing through the pages so fast. I think part of what scared me about the story was how I saw bits of my own father in Jack Torrance, a man fighting his demons and losing. I brought the book with me to school and was sent to the principal's office. They used words like "pornographic" and "disgusting trash," and threw my copy out. Luckily, the local library also had it and I took it out from there, but only read it at home. I had already been into monster movies and horror things before then, but this was the first horror novel I read that gave me nightmares.
Your novel, The Gate at Lake Drive, is a great monster story. (And the cover is super, too!) What's your recipe for a memorable monster?
Really depends on what you're going for. Making one scary—the stuff of nightmares—is just fun. To do that, I usually think of what frightens people. Deep-sea life, spiders, demons, the dark—these are things I'll splice into a monster so that, on a deep level, the elements strike a chord of fear within the reader. I love the idea of monsters with slimy tentacles, coarse hairs, a multitude of eyes, and a nest of sharp, deformed teeth. The trick is making the reader imagine what it'd feel like to be face-to-face with the monster. The idea of feeling the repulsive skin touching your own, the overwhelming odor of rot that lingers on the thing's flesh. That's what I want readers to be thinking as they read.
But what about the monsters that truly hate or can't change what they are, the ones that you pity? I enjoy playing with that theme—the monster that is hunted and feared yet proves to be the character with which the readers relate. The humans who shun or hunt the creature prove to be the real monsters. Having a reader relate to the monster isn't always easy, but it's great when it works!
So, which is the better monster, Alien or Carpenter's The Thing?
For me, without a doubt, it would be Carpenter's The Thing. When I saw this movie for the first time, alone in my dark house (everyone else sleeping), I was terrified. There is nothing simple or easy about the creatures in The Thing, nor is it the actual monster effects that make it overall better. The idea of sitting next to a monster, hidden as a friend, and not knowing who you can trust, is the true greatness of the horror in this. Yet, when the monster is revealed, each time looking different and freaky in a Lovecraft sort of way, the sheer imagination of them raises the terror to an all new level. No scene in Alien can come close to comparing to the dog or head spider scene.
Some of your work hints at Lovecraftian themes. How has Lovecraft impacted your fiction? Why do you think Lovecraft has such an appeal today?
My introduction to Lovecraft didn't come from his books; it came from Stuart Gordon's movies (mainly Re-Animator and From Beyond). Those movies, and a few others, eventually led me to his books. When I started with Lovecraft's stories, I started at the beginning, and was not as hooked on them as I was his later work. I think, like all of us, Lovecraft grew into a much better writer the longer he was at it. His themes on fear, isolation, change, and the unknown are the things that really appealed to me and helped to shape some of what I write. They are simple themes that are universal, and I think that's why they still stand today.
What horror novel by another writer do you wish you had written ... and why?
If there was only one I had to choose of the many I wish I'd written, I think it would have to be Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I know this is not the scariest book, or one of the most horrific books ever, but for me, it was a book I read at a young age that stuck with me throughout the years. I remember the first time I read the book, a few weeks before Halloween, and I felt as though I was in the story. I would lie out on the grass by my house, reading it, and hoping the stories I had started to write by that time would be as perfect as Bradbury's were. I still hold on to those hopes. Fingers crossed.
Besides Stephen King, who is your favorite author? Maybe some unsung horror hero?
One of my favorite horror writers I discovered awhile back is Gemma Files. Not only is she a local writer from my hometown of Toronto, but she writes the kind of horror I love. I think the first story I ever read of hers had appeared in one of the editions of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, which led me to look for more of her work. The one that I picked up first was a collection of her short stories called Kissing Carrion. There are some real favorites in there that spark my own drive to write.
Another favorite would be Christian A. Larsen. He is someone I started reading in 2012 when we both appeared in the Zippered Flesh 2 anthology. I loved his story, "The Little Things." It seemed like every anthology accepting my stories, he was in as well, which had me reading more and more of his work. Not one of his stories disappointed. When he released his first novel, Losing Touch, I was there on release day to grab my copy. I find some writers are good at short stories, some excel in novel or novella length. With Losing Touch, Chris showed he had the skill to do both, keeping the reader engaged from word one to the end.
What horror cliché or trope bugs the crap out of you?
One of the first ones that comes to mind is any movie where there's a creature, especially zombies or vampires, and someone in the group gets bitten and hides it from everyone, only to turn at just the wrong moment. Does anyone not see that coming a mile away every time this cliché is used? I think that's what made a movie like 28 Days Later so unique. The change happens so fast, there's never a chance to try and hide it.
I think the only other one that is used way too much for a cheap scare is the "is he/she dead" cliché. The monster/killer/alien is apparently killed, but instead of continuing to beat, stab, or shoot it, they stop, walk over to make sure it's dead only to have the baddy get up and wreak more havoc. Every time I read or watch one of those scenes, I just imagine how I wouldn't stop until there was no doubt the thing was dead.
Let's talk about short fiction for a minute. You've published a collection of your short stories, At the Gates of Madness. Your stories have also been published in anthologies, including many published by Smart Rhino Publications. What's your strategy for writing a short story?
When I'm writing a new story, most days I have no idea what it's going to be about or how it'll end. Often all I have is an opening, just a line, or maybe a full paragraph—and the story is born from there. People think that everything I write is plotted out and outlined well in advance. It's really not.
When I wrote "Treats," which appears in At the Gates of Madness, the story was simply going to be about an older man on Halloween night, reflecting on his life and his loneliness. A group of vicious teens were going torment the man until he snapped, and he would attack those harassing him. What I ended up writing was a bizarre, very different monster story that many have said is one of the vilest things they've ever read. I remember, when writing the story, that it took a sharp turn. I didn't see that coming.
From time to time, I write something for a themed anthology. "Taut," which appeared in Zippered Flesh 2, is a good example of that. I knew the theme was about body modification, so I sat down intending to write a story about suspension. That was as much as I knew when I started. I had no idea who the characters would be, where the story was going, or how it would end. That's the way I prefer to write a short story—allowing the story to become what it wants to be.
With all that in mind, what would you advise a new fiction writer concerning tailoring a tale?
Whenever a newer writer asks me for advice on writing a short story, I tell them four things.
Number one: Grab the reader right from the start. Whether it's jumping into the action or simply writing something that's striking, you need to give them a good punch right off the bat. Hook 'em and reel 'em in.
Number two: Give the reader a great punch at the end. Don't end the story with a cliché like and then he/she woke up. Nobody likes that.
Number three: Make sure your characters' actions make sense. Don't ever make a character do something that nobody would do in real life. We see it all the time in movies, those moments where you think, "Why would they go in the basement! Get out of the house!" If you can explain the reasoning behind the action though, then do it. But re-read that section and, if it sounds forced, cut it.
Number four: Don't over-explain! All too often, I see writers over-explaining things, especially through dialogue. It's sloppy writing to have a character explain the cause of some unexplainable event when there's no way he/she could possibly know the cause. Use scenes, actions, and descriptions to push the plot, and let the reader take it from there.
Okay, now let's talk about editors. What do you find most rewarding about working with editors? Most frustrating?
I have worked with so many great editors over the years, and only one or two experiences stand out as unpleasant. The best thing about most editors is how they've taught me to be a better writer. Showing me what works and doesn't work, what common mistakes I make—that teaches me how to improve. At one time, I used to throw the words "that" and "had" into my stories like they were punctuation.
Most frustrating is the few I've worked with that won't listen to why a scene has to be the way it is. In one of my stories, I wrote about an abusive man who says some of the cruelest things to his wife. The editor told me it wasn't realistic, that nobody would ever speak like that. But when I told the editor that it was something I heard firsthand, they still tried to cut it. Luckily, the publisher agreed with me. I've also had some issues with characters saying some unsavory things. Some editors have said that being offensive in today's climate makes people steer clear of your books. I don't believe in censorship when it is something important to the story, so in the case where this was an issue that wouldn't be let go, I declined the offer of being in the book, and included the story in one of my own collections.
What has been your greatest challenge as a writer?
The greatest challenge has been trying to get my work out there to as many people as I would like. I've tried social media advertising, giveaways, special offers, free books to reviewers, and getting into anthologies with big name publishers. I've done interviews with a few different magazines, vloggers, and podcasts, but the writing industry is a hard nut to crack. I'm happy with the success I've had, but it's my dream, as well as for many other writers, to quit my day job and write full-time. I have more novel ideas I want to write than I have time, so having the time to write them would be nice.
What advice would you offer new writers about marketing their work?
Be careful would be the first. I think many new writers think that social media is the way to get your work out there to a massive audience. They get their Facebook friend's list up to 5000, and then start bombarding people with page "likes," sharing links to their books once an hour or on each of their friend's pages, and just push way too hard. I did the same thing when At the Gates of Madness came out. I was so excited to have my book read that I did everything I could to let people know where they could buy it.
I think another thing to stay away from is the paid option to "boost" posts on Facebook. If you have a page for people to "like," paying to promote a post actually hurts any other posts you make. It's a strange algorithm that chokes the rest of your posts. The trick to getting more people to see your posts is to create more engagement. Share things to you page wall, and tag where each source comes from. Get people involved, and then use the page to advertise your book once a week or less and you might see a rise in sales. And show your personality, not only your work. Other ways to get your book noticed are doing book conventions, offering free copies for honest reviews, and being visible and accessible on places like Twitter and Goodreads.
I'm always fascinated with what scare horror writers. What's your worst nightmare?
I'm not really someone who has many fears or worries. I think if you focus on negativity, worry about things too much, you have a strong chance of attracting those very things to you. There are worries I have, usually involving my kids, and how stressed they sometimes seem, as well as their safety, but nothing I would consider a true fear or nightmare. So, I think I would say that I can offer what my worst reoccurring nightmares are. I think dreams are a sign of what we fear subconsciously anyway. I like to use my bad dreams as fodder for my stories, so anyone who has read my work might be able to figure out that I have nightmares of isolation, abandonment, unsafe heights, and unknown things in the shadows. I don't wish I only had nice, safe dreams though. My nightmares always give me something fun to write about.
One last question. If you could rewrite or remake any horror movie, which one would it be? And why?
If I could rewrite or remake any horror movie, I think it would have to be The Stuff. I know it seems like a strange one to pick, but when I was watching it the other day, I wondered what this movie would be like made in today's world of social media influencers. When I watched it as a kid, I thought it was silly that so many people would go crazy over something like that, but with how things are now I think it would go over even better. We live in a world where everyone wants to jump on the next big thing. They want to go on Instagram with their black ice creams, unicorn drinks, and whatever other food is trendy. The Stuff would be a social media wonder, and I think it would be how I would tackle a remake of it.
Thanks, Shaun, for such an informative interview. We look forward to reading more of your work!
This interview was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Suspense Magazine.