Q&A: Adam McOmber on Writing Horror, Growing up Gay in Ohio, and Church


Many of the short stories in Adam McOmber’s new collection, My House Gathers Desires (BOA Editions), are likely to leave you looking over your shoulder or clicking on an extra lamp at nightfall. Readers of his two previous books, the novel The White Forest, and his first book and first story collection, This New and Poisonous Air, will find themselves similarly absorbed by his enviable ability to blend the real with the surreal and the factual with the fanciful.  McOmber, who teaches and writes in Los Angeles, is the rare writer who appears equally comfortable writing a traditional horror story like “Hydrophobia,” which chronicles a woman’s chilling transformation into an unearthly creature, as he is writing satire such as “Notes on Inversion,” a story in the form of case studies modeled on 19th century Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis.

The National’s Christine Sneed had questions for McOmber about his new collection, novels versus short stories, and the experience of growing up gay in rural Ohio. where churchgoing was deeply embedded in the culture. As he told her: “Religion was everywhere, and I understood that it was against me.”

Q: I'm always impressed by how so many of your stories begin with a placid, reasonable-seeming narrator and set of circumstances, but in the next moment, you introduce an air of strong menace that often remains until the last line.  When you start these stories do you know right away that you're going to take this turn? 

A: Short stories are sites of experiment for me.  They’re such a pleasure because of that.  I rarely know where a story is going when I begin.  Story writing is a very different experience from novel writing, where I feel I must know something about the end in order to begin.  Frequently with a short story, what I’m most interested is not the story at all, but the voice of the narrator, the texture of the language.  I become almost lost in the rhythm, reading sentences over and over again.  The narrative develops slowly out of that. My mind naturally turns to horror.  I like horror, the feeling it gives.  So that’s usually where the stories go.

Q: Several of these stories are set in Europe (Austria, Germany and France, in particular), as far back as the 1500s.  What spurs you to set so many of your stories in the past and in these countries?

A: Honestly, I like to be separated from the present moment.  I read almost entirely speculative fiction, and my preference is to read literary speculative fiction that is set in a time period or place other than my own.  I like stories about the future or stories that are set in alternate realities.  Life as it is just doesn’t interest me that much. That isn’t to say I don’t appreciate and enjoy my own life.  I do.  But I don’t want to read about it. I never read fiction to see what real people are like.  In my mind, that’s not what fiction is for.

Q: Religious imagery is prevalent in your work, which provides such a powerful link to myth and guilt and magic.  If you were writing stories set in the present day, do you think reliquaries, saints and monks would still populate them? 

A: I grew up gay in a small town in Ohio.  Religion was everywhere, and I understood that it was against me. I think that’s why religion comes up so often in my stories.  I’m responding to that childhood feeling.  As far as I can remember, I was an atheist from a very young age. I never believed in God or spirits or anything like that. The idea of going to church seemed so strange to me.  I could barely sit through a church service.  Actually, church services were one of the places where I honed my imagination (that and high school basketball games).

I willed my mind to go somewhere else.  And I got very good at escaping. When I write about religion, I’m doing so to dismantle it or disrupt it. I want to turn the whole thing inside out, to show people how strange it is. Also, if I’m being completely honest, I’m fascinated by experiences of the spiritual and the cosmic.  I often write about those things in a positive way, but they’re never connected to traditional religion.  To answer your question about settings in the present day though, I’m not particularly interested in setting stories in our current time period.  A reliquary today or a monk seems even more ridiculous to me than a reliquary or a monk in the Middle Ages.  I wouldn’t know how to write about those things.

Q: Erotic and homoerotic imagery is likewise a frequent feature of your work; your characters are often tormented by their unspoken sexual desires.  When paired with the spooky situations you've conjured (no pun intended), the mix is disorienting and unnerving.  Is it these desires, as you see it, that lead to your characters' downfalls, in some cases?

A: I approach sex and sexuality in my work as a kind spiritual experience.  I think there is an otherworldliness to all of it. It’s a way of releasing oneself, becoming more.  Cultural repression sets up barriers, but for me those barriers also imply an eventual breaking, setting oneself free.  I want to give my characters those ecstatic moments, moments of absolute escape.  But I also understand that fantasy can be a dangerous thing.  Living too fully in fantasy can destroy you.  So that’s in there too.

Q: You use several words in My House Gathers Desires that I had to look up – cucurbit and scryer, for example.  I'm guessing you come across them in your own reading - what are some of the books that inspired these stories?

A: I am so inspired by reading.  I love looking at obscure texts and incorporating elements from them into my fiction.  There are so many references in My House Gathers Desires, it’s difficult to name them all. Just looking around my desk right now, I see the following:  A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities by J.C. McKeown, Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Cornelius Agrippa (this is a book that Edgar Allan Poe had in his own library), The History of Magic by Eliphas Levi, Earth and the Reveries of Will by Gaston Bachelard and The Haunted Dolls’ House by M.R. James.

Q:  You've published a spooky and excellent novel, The White Forest (Touchstone, 2102) as well as two story collections now.  As both reader and writer, do you prefer one form over the other?

A: Short stories.  Absolutely.  I like reading them and writing them.  All too often, I feel like contemporary novels are padded.  I get so bored when reading them. There’s a good idea in there, but much of the prose seems like it needs to be cut away to let the idea shine through.  Frequently, I think I don’t really know what a novel is.  They don’t exactly make sense to me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I recently completed a novel (I do write them, even though they are confounding to me).  The book is a reimaging of various elements from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.  I’m now working on some short stories.  One is about 19th century explorers on Mars.  Another is a kind of queer retelling of Peter Pan

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Christine Sneed is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men.  Her stories or essays have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Ploughshares, and a number of other periodicals.  She lives in Evanston, IL and teaches for Northwestern University’s graduate program in creative writing and for Regis University’s low-residency MFA program.