Veterans in Horror: Interview with Jonathan Gensler
Jonathan Gensler writes dark slipstream and speculative fiction inspired by his decades of wildly varied life experiences as a combat veteran and clean tech entrepreneur. After growing up in a haunted house in WV and living in several corners of the world, he now resides in Nashville with his wife and three children. You can find him on Twitter @jgensler. He may have stopped writing long enough to get his website working at jonathangensler.com, but maybe not.
Tell us a bit about your military service. Years? Branch? Specialty?
I graduated from West Point in 2000 and served as an Army officer for five years. I was an armor guy, a tanker, stationed in Fort Carson, CO, and deployed twice after 9/11. The first was a six month tour in Kuwait as a tank platoon leader, sitting up on the Iraqi border, training for a war that wasn’t yet declared. The second was the first year of the actual Iraq War, when I led our battalion infantry mortar platoon and then took over our operations center as what we called a battle captain for about 6 months of night shifts.
What role, if any, did reading and writing play during your military service?
I still have stacks of my journals from the whole nine-year period sitting on my bookshelf, unread to this day. I had written poetry and journaled most of my teenage years up to that point, but when I got out of the service I stopped journaling and writing almost completely for reasons I haven’t quite grasped. That was over 15 years ago. Reading, on the other hand is something I have never stopped doing. These combat deployments were well before I had anything like an e-reader, so it was physical books all the way. I must have lugged around a ridiculous amount of books with me. The big ones that hit me the hardest while deployed are still some of my favorites: Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Epictetus’ The Enchiridion, my first readings of Ender’s Game and that series. I got my first copy of House of Leaves while deployed to Iraq and that copy is scrawled with my own footnotes and reflections, and is falling apart at the seams. And then of course, King finished out The Dark Tower while I was deployed so I had those tomes sent to me and to tote around as well. So, yeah, I filled my spare hours with both reading and writing, quite a bit of both.
What inspired you to start writing?
One of my clearest memories of middle school is being asked to write a short story in the manner of an author we admired. I wrote a death-filled little bit of darkness called Black Feathers, imitating, if not outright copying, Stephen King’s style. I have been an avid reader my entire life, but even after that class prompt, I never really caught the creative writing bug. I think I was always pushed towards the sciences by my mentors and counselors, as they came very naturally to me, while the writing thing just lingered there in the background. Later, the Army did its job as well. Even though I majored in Russian literature and culture at West Point, the creative flow was just stopped up until a few years ago. One day maybe two years ago I just woke up and knew I had stories to tell. So many of my life experiences are a bit unbelievable, and I just started wanting to tell them. And as I was starting to tell them, I started asking myself – what if it was worse? What if all of the miraculous things that have happened in my favor – what if the dice rolls of chaos came out differently? And that question makes up much of the source material for what I am writing about today. Trauma, grief, the unexplainable, a half dozen or more near death experiences.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I spent my young childhood growing up in a very haunted house in Huntington, West Virginia. It is still there, standing over its hillside, looking down on the valley with baleful eyes, hungry. It gives me the willies every time I return home and have to drive past it. My family confirms my memories, and the people who moved in after us even had whatever you call an exorcism of a building performed on the house. It still stands empty, and someone could buy it for a song, yet no one does.
I think those early experience touched me, and I have always been curious about, even fascinated by, the weird, the supernatural, the dark. And about the people who experience these things and have to wake up the next day and try to live whatever approximates a normal life. I enjoy being scared. I enjoy pushing myself to my limits to better understand myself and others.
What role, if any, does your military experience play in your writing?
I find myself writing about my military experiences quite often. I had some very mysterious experiences while a cadet at West Point, and the intensity of that place in general amps whatever emotions you have up to 11, and part of the part years there is to learn how to operate under the most extreme duress, to approximate combat. I assert West Point is a haunted place because of this. I went through a messy marriage while I was in uniform as well, a marriage that never had a chance after 9/11 and the “War on Terror” kicked into gear. So emotionally I was under fire from all angles, and then in combat itself, well I had more than one very close call with death. The experiences are integral to who I am today, and naturally, they want to come out in my writing. I don’t believe I ever truly processed all of it, until I started writing some fantastical stories about my time in uniform.
What is your favorite depiction of military service in all of literature? Why?
War is madness, and those who wake up every day knowing they have to enter and survive that madness (as I once did), well it is a hard thing to capture their experiences in words. But I think my favorite is Catch 22. Joseph Heller nails the feelings of discombobulation, the sheer absurdity of the day-to-day grind of combat. And he does it with the dark humor that every combat veteran must eventually adopt in order to keep some room for sanity to survive. I just love that book.
How do you feel military veterans and the broader military experience has thus far been represented in the horror genre?
I know we have a few authors who write what you could call a military sub-genre of horror. I personally haven’t read too much, and I try to read a broad swath, so I’d assert that our experiences aren’t all that well represented in this particular genre. I think this is partly due to the insular nature a lot of vets have about their own experiences. It is difficult to write through trauma. Personal trauma is one thing, but shared trauma like combat, I have a suspicion that it might carry even more emotional restraints on it. A lot of folks are forgiving and sympathetic to those who suffered personal trauma. Even today, when so much of our national culture is steeped in overt patriotism, there is still a cultural judgment put on those who served, and that we signed up for it, so should be able to deal with it. That sense of judgment can make it more difficult to process in the open, through either fiction or creative non-fiction, of which I have a lot of experiences which would constitute true horror as well.
Who are some civilian characters in horror that you think would have made for great soldiers?
The ability to stand and face your demons or those of your friends would make anyone a standout soldier in “the trenches.” So, too many to name.
Who are some military veteran horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
If you didn’t know Brian Keene is a veteran, then now you do. And there we are. I am certain that at least a few of the people I love to read are military vets, but I don’t know who they are. That is why this new HWA Veterans Group is so useful.
What’s something about veterans most people don’t know?
I think most of us just want to be helpful, and that being a veteran isn’t the first thing we identify ourselves as (see previous answer). It is an important part of our identity, but usually not the most important part. And we don’t bite – often.