Horror Writers Association Blog

Interview with Horror University instructor Michael Arnzen

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Here’s the latest installment in our series of interviews with our StokerCon 2017 Horror University instructors. This time, Michael Arnzen tells us more about his “Making Readers Squirm” workshop. 

Michael Arnzen: Making Readers Squirm

This two hour workshop will cover insider tricks and tactics for crafting horror imagery—not just icons of the genre, but direct appeals to the reader’s sensorium— images that really hit readers in the guts. It will include a live writing activity with the aim of improving description of a gory or scary scene. Open to novelists, poets, flash fiction writers … anyone looking to sharpen their writing skills—from the crafty suspense writer to anyone eager to “go for the gross out.”

Amityville-born horror writer Michael Arnzen holds four Bram Stoker Awards® and an International Horror Guild Award for his often funny, always disturbing fiction and poetry. A 10th anniversary edition of his Stoker-award winning story collection, Proverbs for Monsters, was recently re-released by Dark Regions Press to celebrate its 10th Anniversary. Other recent Arnzen titles include his novel, Grave Markings (Raw Dog Screaming Press) a non-fiction study, The Popular Uncanny (Guide Dog Books), and a helpful collection of “story starters” for dark fiction authors called Instigation: Creative Prompts on the Dark Side (Mastication Publications).  Arnzen holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon and since 1999 has taught full-time at Seton Hill University, near Pittsburgh, in their MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction.  Always experimenting, Arnzen’s work in the genre has appeared in everything from poetry magnets (Fridge of the Damned) to Palm Pilots (Gorelets) to playing cards (Play Dead) to moving pictures (Exquisite Corpse).  Learn the latest and sign up for his newsletter: http://gorelets.com


Tell us something about your StokerCon workshop that is not in the original description:

Our class is called “Making Reader Squirm,” but that doesn’t mean that writers won’t do so too.

But in all seriousness, the focus is on constructing horror imagery through not only concepts but specific appeals to the senses.  So the workshop will be very…sensual.  Wow, I’m squirming just writing THAT!

What skills or achievements make you ideally suited to lead this workshop?

You’ve heard the expression, “Things that make you go hmmm?”  Well, I’m a lifelong expert at expressing “Things that make you go ewwwww.”  And sometimes, I guess, that thing is just simply me.

I’ve taught variations on this workshop before, not only in my day job — which is a professor of “Writing Popular Fiction” at Seton Hill University — but also in other workshops, like Horrorfest in Virginia, and Alpha, the teen speculative fiction writing workshop out of Pittsburgh.  I don’t want to brag, but I presume my Stoker awards for horror writing vouch for my abilities to make people squirm with words, especially the one for Poetry.

Why do you feel that your workshop subject is especially important?

Too many books are called “spine-tingling” that don’t even muster a tickle.  Writers who want to truly stand out in the genre need to sneak up on their readers and make their guts lurch the way the best roller coasters do.  The best fiction I’ve read has given me that creepy frisson of fear we all recognize when the story is getting to us at a deeper level than others — and this workshop will focus solely on how good prose can create that emotional impact.

If you could participate in one other StokerCon workshop, which one would you choose and why?

Don’t make me pick a favorite — I love all the instructors and I know I would pick up great strategies from any of them, even though I’ve been writing and publishing for over twenty years now.  The wise con-goer will sample freely from the gory buffet that the HWA has set up here.

But if you screwed my thumbs down for an answer, I’d probably say (or scream?) John Skipp’s “How to Write Like a Scenarist (and Adapting to Stage, Screen and Comics)” because I know it will involve a lot of spontaneously and hilariously sick ideas and lively passion from both the master himself and the class participants.

Do you approach the craft of writing horror differently from other genres?

For me, horror isn’t so much a genre as it is a worldview.  I wouldn’t say that people are inherently “born talented” as writers, because writing is a learned art, but some of us do seem to come prebuilt with darker lenses in our eyes that shape and brand our horror storytelling.

But for the rest of us, you only get that worldview with time, and from immersing yourself in the genre as deeply as you can for as long as you can until it becomes more than a gimmick or a lifestyle — it just becomes a way of seeing.  You can do this from watching movies, attending cons, celebrating Halloween every day, and so on, but mostly it comes from reading a lot. Read tons of dark books, even in subgenres you might not like, until it sticks with you.  Let the genre stain you until it won’t come out of your writing, no matter how hard you might try, and you’ll be a legitimate horror writer.  Because you won’t be able to help yourself.

Apart from teaching your workshop, what are you most looking forward to at StokerCon?

Catching up with lifelong friends in the genre and meeting new authors. If horror is a worldview, we also need to be around people who share it.  When you enter the con hotel, it might be crowded with people, but you can tell who your tribe members are, because they’re laughing together (and probably dressed mostly in black).

Oh, and I know the Stoker Banquet will be fun, too.  Jeff Strand is worth the ticket price, and — weirdly, perhaps — it’s one of the few events like these where I find myself captivated by everyone’s speeches.  I just love it when we celebrate our peers.   Writing is a tough gig, and we deserve the recognition like this, because even when you’re a successful author, it can be a little lonely and cold without the mutual support.

What do you most hope that those attending your workshop will take away from it?

If I’m lucky, they’ll leave the room looking at the world a little differently — “eating with their eyes” as John Shirley once put it, in regard to the writer’s imagination.

But in general, I think it will reinforce everyone’s respect for the prose. I want to give the horror writer a better awareness of what it is they are doing as a writer that really makes people cringe and writhe and maybe even scream.  You have to earn these kinds of reactions by working the words, and I hope people will feel like this class helps them achieve that.  I also hope folks leave the room with a lot of ideas for new stories… and a sense that they have made a few new friends in the business.


StokerCon 2017 will be taking place from April 27th to April 30th on board the historic Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the StokerCon website.

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