Interview: Discussing Damage and Dread with Kevin Quigley

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photo of author Kevin QuigleyMassachusetts pop culture scribe and novelist Kevin Quigley’s career began in 1996 at the age of twenty-one when he established his own Stephen King fan site, Charnel House. There he wrote about King’s work in all its various shapes and forms. From there he went on to pen articles and books on King (such as Ink in the Veins: Writing on Stephen King and The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Trivia Book, which he co-wrote with Hans-Ake Lilja and Brian James Freeman) for Cemetery Dance Publications. In addition, he has contributed essays to other writers’ works, such as Stephen Spignesi and Michael Lewis’ Elton John: 50 Years On, Brian James Freeman’s Reading Stephen King, and Anthony Northrup’s forthcoming Stephen King Dollar Baby: The Book, just to name a few. He has also written a book-length study of Blitzen Trapper’s 2008 album Furr. Despite these impressive accomplishments, Quigley’s true passion is writing fiction.

Quigley has only published two novels, I’m On Fire and Roller Disco Saturday Night, although he claims to have written another thirty that are unpublished. At this point in his fiction career, it’s his short fiction that he’s best known for. His short stories have appeared alongside the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ramsay Campbell, Richard Chizmar, and Clive Barker in the anthologies Shining in the Dark (edited by Hans-Ake Lilja) and Halloween Carnival: Volume Five (edited by Brian James Freeman). He has published two impressive short story collections (both with Cemetery Dance), This Terrestrial Hell (2012) and Damage and Dread (2020). His stories are masterful and cover a lot of ground in terms of scope and tone.

With this in mind, I sat down to talk with Kevin Quigley about his fantastic new collection Damage and Dread and all things writing.

(Interview conducted by Andrew J. Rausch)

CEMETERY DANCE: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

KEVIN QUIGLEY: I’ve been obsessed with stories and the idea of writing since before I can remember. In first grade, we often got these lists of vocabulary words and our teachers asked us to contextualize them in sentences. I went real extra and wrote a whole short story that encapsulated all of them. My teacher was charmed by the first one, but by the third, you could tell I had exhausted her.

Later on — I think it was in middle school — a friend of mine suggested we collaborate on a collection of short stories. This might have been in the fourth or fifth grade. We were both aware of the comic Creepshow, although I had yet to develop my Stephen King fixation. The idea was that I would write these short-short stories, and he would then illustrate them. We pilfered a whole pile of those blue composition notebooks schools used to give out in the Eighties. My buddy gave up on the illustrations pretty quickly. I kept at the writing side of things, trying to come up with punchy, plot-driven stuff. Who cared if it was derivative? 

Was it derivative?

It totally was! Always.

The first breakthrough came in seventh grade when my computer teacher gave everyone in class a paper bag with a bunch of objects in it, and you had to write a short story involving those objects. It was like Chopped, but for fiction. I wrote a mystery story that my teacher went nuts over, and I got my story published in the school newsletter. That’s when I realized that this is what I wanted out of my life: to have my stories read, published, and who knows? Maybe even praised a little.

black background with purple photo of Stephen King and text in purple that says Charnel House

Who would you say have been your biggest writing influences? Judging from your career writing about him, I’m guessing Stephen King is one of them.

Stephen King was my first major influence. All my early short stories (and most of my current short work) are horror-focused. I became aware very early that writing horror in a world where Stephen King is not only the biggest name but also my primary influence was going to make it tough for me. Early on, I tried my level best to work against his style and subjects and was occasionally successful.

As I read more widely and deeply, though, my own style began to emerge. William Goldman’s book The Color of Light convinced me that I could write a cover of Roller Disco Saturday Night by Kevin Quigleynovel. When I finished, I put the book down, stood up, and went to my computer to begin my first novel, Spare Parts. It’s sort of “lad lit”; a romance novel for guys. It’s not very good, but it got my foot in the door. I wrote two more novels that year — a serial killer horror novel and a detective story influenced highly by Robert B. Parker, Dennis Lehane, and Harlan Coben.

It all explodes from there. My biggest literary influence beyond King is the novelist John Irving, whose novel The World According to Garp gave me a sort of template for writing stories about complicated people and their complicated lives. Ann Patchett has been a recent influence in that regard, because she can write tragedies that feel like awkward comedies, and she’s compulsively readable. I want to be compulsively readable, but I tend to find myself going down rabbit holes I find fascinating in the moment, and then have to spend days cleaning up during editing.

Since you’re a huge Stephen King fan and he’s been a big influence, it must be exciting for you to be published at Cemetery Dance, where King has published a number of books, including Blockade Billy, Gwendy’s Button Box, and Flight or Fright.

Working with Cemetery Dance has been a dream. Back when I was just starting out, I sent them a few of my short stories, but nothing ever came of it. Then they needed an assist with The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Trivia Book, and they were so impressed with my work that they asked me if I’d be interested in writing chapbooks for them. At the time, they were sending monthly book bundles to subscribers, and the chapbook series were these fun freebies they’d throw in. I worked my butt off on those — Chart of Darkness, Blood in Your Ears, Stephen King Limited I and II, and more. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when they took a chance on my first novel, I’m On Fire, as an ebook, and then my short story collections This Terrestrial Hell and Damage and Dread as both trade paperbacks and ebooks.

Stephen King is an influence, but he’s not my biggest literary influence. It’s weird, because most of the novels I write aren’t horror, where most of my short stories are. I find that my style comes from a bizarre combo of John Irving, William Goldman, Judy Blume, and Lawrence Block, as well as King. He’s certainly my favorite writer, though, so of course his style and voice influence even my non-horror work. Being a Stephen King reader and fan most of my life, I’m a little gobsmacked being published by the same publisher as him (and once or twice, in the same collection!). I’m continually gratified to be part of the Cemetery Dance family and I hope that continues for quite some time.

Let’s talk about your new collection, Damage and Dread. There is a real diversity in the kinds of stories in it. There are some with Twilight Zone-like twists, and then unexpected, far more subtle stories like “Swing,” which actually brought me to tears. It’s a very beautiful piece of writing. 

cover of Damage and Dread by Kevin QuigleyWell, some of it comes from influence, like we were talking about. If I’ve come across a new style that hits me really hard, or an author I get swallowed up by, that influence absolutely flavors the writing. Because I’m an omnivorous reader, those sorts of influences come from everywhere. Like I said, I’m currently obsessed with Ann Patchett, and I think I’ve been subconsciously dipping into her well of prose and spilling it all over the novel I’m currently writing.

But influence comes from everywhere. “The Coming of the Elves” was a high school story prompted only by my teacher asking the class to write a Christmas story. She read that one aloud in class and that might have been the catalyst for me knowing I could be a real writer. “Suspension” came about because I read a story about someone trapped in an elevator, and I thought I could write a better story than that on the same themes. So, rampant hubris can be motivation. You asked about “Swing,” which came at the end of a long, dusty period of writer’s block. A friend of mine was doing a podcast and he would prompt people with a random sentence from a book. The sentence was “I will never know for certain how many lives I have destroyed by being willfully and persistently a friend to all mankind.” I was in Los Angeles, my favorite place, when I got the prompt, and I realized I’d never written a California story. I wanted to capture the tragic beauty of it all; the reality of artifice. And I’ve been wanting to write a story about someone believing himself a Triton for years. It all came together.

A lot of these came from prompts in my head; challenges I threw at myself, mixed together with the unformed germ of an idea. For example: I was eager to see if I could write a short story that would pass the Bechdel test — a story featuring two named women whose conversations don’t revolve around men. I’d also been reading a lot about cloning and the idea of bringing extinct species like the dodo back to life; I was able to combine my challenge and my idea into one story with “The Extinction Device.” “You’re Going to Kill Me” came when I was thinking about shows like Quantum Leap and Early Edition — stories about people who have foreknowledge of bad events and strive to make them good. I had just finished reading Michelle McNamera’s I’ll Be Gone In the Dark and I was fascinated by the idea of a serial killer never being caught and how he would get away with that. And those two thoughts combined, peanut butter and chocolate-style, into “You’re Going to Kill Me.”

Whereas “Drawn to the Flame” comes from my attempt, sadly unsuccessful, to cope with my very real and very unsettling moth phobia. It is so hard to read that story. When I was editing it, my revulsion was so great that I almost put it aside. If you’re going to write horror, why not write on your own fears?

You said “The Coming of the Elves” was first written in high school. How different is the published version from what you first wrote? Or was what you wrote what ended up in the book?

Oh, it was heavily edited. After I realized that the theme running through several of these stories was “I bet you’re hungry,” I was able to punch this story up with that concept as a through-line. The ending is the same (in fact, my teacher read this aloud in class and hated that last twist at the end), but I think I foreshadowed it and snuck up on it a little better. And of course, there’s been nearly thirty years between that version and this one, so pop culture has shifted considerably. In 1993, there was no Instagram, no memes as we know them, no gifs as we know them. So it was fun to update the story for a contemporary audience.

You’ve written long-form fiction, short stories, and nonfiction. You seem well equipped to work in each of these forms. Is there a form that you feel the most comfortable working in?

cover of Halloween Carnival Volume 5 showing a person holding a jack o' lanternI started off writing short fiction and poems. In sophomore year of high school, I wrote a truly dreadful It knockoff called Mind of Darkness, but mostly I kept to the shorter stuff. That’s what my English teachers would grade.

When I was twenty-three, three major events impacted my life: I broke up with my long-term boyfriend and met another who would become my husband; I read Stephen King’s On Writing; and I read Goldman’s The Color of Light. I realized I could write a novel. The first gave me the plot, the second gave me the tools, the third gave me the catalyst. That book, Spare Parts, is not very good, but it proved I could write long-form fiction. The second book I wrote, the horror novel I’m On Fire, solidified my confidence. With the exception of a long writer’s block in 2015, I’ve been writing novels ever since.

That seems to be what I’m most comfortable doing. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction in my life, from those chapbooks to articles to essays, and a full-length study of the Blitzen Trapper album, Furr. I’ll still write it, but it’s not something I’m as at ease with nowadays. Short stories now are harder for me. My ideas want to spill out of me, and I want to go on side quests and figure out what tertiary characters are up to. Because of that, I have to sneak up on short stories. They can’t know I’m writing them until I’m almost done. It’s such a bizarre way to approach writing. The one I’m working on now got tricked into existence because it’s a short story written by a character in the novel I’m working on. So technically it’s a chapter in a book . . . but it’s still a short story, and yes, it’s horror.

Do you read your stories or novels to your husband, Shawn, as you’re working through them? Does he have a favorite?

Occasionally he’ll read a short story of mine, but he vastly prefers my nonfiction. He’s my first proofreader when it comes to that stuff; he helped to edit the first draft of all my chapter books and my book on Blitzen Trapper. He’s actually only read one-and-a-half of my novels—the first, terrible one he finished while we were still dating and he wanted to impress me. He got to the twist in I’m On Fire and couldn’t read anymore. He’s only into horror in an adjacent way, and I don’t think he wants to know the more unsettling things I think about.

Every writer except maybe J.D. Salinger wants to see their work adapted to film. If you could have any of your works translated to film, which would you most like to see made?

Unfortunately, the story I think is most filmable is “Drawn to the Flame”; I say unfortunately because, again, my moth phobia is very real and very debilitating, and I probably couldn’t sit through a filmed version of that. I would love to see “The Extinction Device” or “Laura Did Something Bad” onscreen. “Extinction” came to technicolor life in my head as I was writing it, and I always thought “Laura” could be done right if you could understand her motivations. Stuff like “Swing” might be too internal to film, but I still picture it almost like a silent film, black and white, with a noir feel.

Wrapping this up, what can we expect to see from you in the future?

Well, I have a couple of books in the hopper at Cemetery Dance, including expanded and enhanced versions of Chart of Darkness and Stephen King Limited. I’m always working on books and have published a few on my Patreon. Readers can subscribe there for one dollar a month to read all my chapters to all my published books. I also have a new horror novel called Wolves in the Black I’m shopping around, hoping for some bites. Always writing, always working. It’s the best way I know how to stay sane.

Thank you for talking with us, Kevin.

Thank you. The pleasure is mine.

Andrew J. Rausch is a Rondo Hatton Award-nominated author/journalist/screenwriter/graphic novelist. He serves as the web editor at Diabolique magazine, and is a contributor to Shock Cinema, both Screem and Scream magazines, Diabolique, Senses of Cinema, Secular By Nature, Cemetery Dance, and Scary Monsters. His latest nonfiction book My Best Friend’s Birthday: The Making of a Quentin Tarantino Film and his gritty new crime novel American Trash are both available on Amazon.

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