Author Steve Rasnic Tem has a big readership, matched by a big collection of impressive awards that he's received over the years. During a successful writing career of forty years and counting, Tem has won the British Fantasy Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker, and he's been honored by the International Horror Guild.
Tem is one of many local authors who have work featured in the Denver Horror Collective’s anthology Consumed: Tales Inspired by the Wendigo. The collection is a follow-up to the group's initial hit, Terror at 5280’, which debuted in 2019. We caught up with Tem to talk about his work and writing, about Colorado and the fate of the world.
You know — the small stuff.
Westword: Let’s start with your inclusion in Consumed. Can you talk a little bit about taking part in that collection?
Steve Rasnic Tem: I was beginning this process during the first few months of the pandemic, and the idea of “starvation” took on a particular significance. Many people are now starved for human contact, unable to engage in the social activities which in many cases kept them balanced. Some people have hoarded food and other supplies, afraid they might not have enough. Another effect of the times is a growing distrust of other people. Some folks have started viewing their neighbors as a threat.
All these threads went into the creation of my Wendigo tale. Its title is “An Gorta Mór,” a reference to the historic Irish famine.
You've been writing for decades; tell us a little about where it began, and how it made the turn toward the speculative.
I moved from Virginia to Colorado back in the ’70s specifically to learn how to become a writer. I’d had a few writing classes during my time at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, written a lot of poetry and a handful of short stories, made notes for several novels, and even began a novel as a senior in high school (which later became my Southern gothic novel Blood Kin). But I wasn’t clear on how to turn the subjects which obsessed me into fiction and poetry. I hadn’t mastered the craft required. I hadn’t developed a process. And like most young writers, I was looking for some kind of validation. I wanted to know if I was good enough.
I was fascinated by what I thought of as “hidden realities”—myth, dream, historical events which had mythic implications for the collective unconscious (Hiroshima, the Holocaust), congenital malformations, people’s secret lives, etc. — as well as the strangeness and alienation inherent in just living. I felt these realties were as impactful on human beings as the ordinary events of everyday life.
Consumed publisher Josh Schlossberg has called you "the Ray Bradbury of Colorado" — pretty high praise. How do you respond to that?
Very kind of him. Bradbury was an important figure for me when I was young, so I’m honored by the compliment. For potential new readers, those kinds of comparisons can give a rough idea of what your writing is like. Of course, comparisons vary depending on reading experience. When my first collection was published in France, the French critics compared my work variously to Raymond Carver, Kafka and the Italian writer Dino Buzzati. I wasn’t familiar with Buzzati at the time; since then, he’s become a favorite.
But writers are more than a sum of their influences, and comparisons can be tricky. Readers who like Ray Bradbury may like a number of my stories, but some of my fiction is quite un-Bradbury-like and may leave them cold. My goal has always been to discover what a “Steve Rasnic Tem story” is and to publish as many of those Steve Rasnic Tem stories as I can. Ideally, those stories are at least a little different from any other writer’s, and I hope they don’t fit neatly into fantasy, horror, science fiction, surrealism or any other category of fiction. We limit our ideas when we decide beforehand what boxes they should fit into. The mission, I think, should be to become a genre of one.
In terms of your own stories, your most recent collection, The Night Doctor and Other Tales, came out on Colorado’s own Centipede Press. What's the relationship between genre fiction and the commercial markets? So much great stuff seems to come from the small presses around the country, which is both awesome and frustrating in different ways.
In the case of short stories, it’s not so much about genre as it is about the short story form. Generally speaking, single-author short-story collections are not commercial successes. They’re almost always a gamble for commercial publishers, and because the drop in sales with a short-story collection can potentially hurt a novelist’s career, even successful writers will sometimes go to a smaller, non-commercial press with their collections. This applies to both genre writers and writers with a more mainstream reputation. There are exceptions when the writer is extremely successful, or if the author is thought to be of special literary interest, but for most of us, that is the commercial reality.
But working with independent presses does allow you to do projects which are less commercial and more appropriate to a smaller niche audience. [They] can fill in some much-needed gaps in traditional publishing.
Do you define yourself as a horror writer? Or is that too restrictive a label?
I love horror, so I don’t object to being called a horror writer. But I think of myself primarily as a “writer.” My model for “writer” is perhaps an old-fashioned one. I want to be a writer who has written a little bit of everything: novels, stories of all genres, poetry, plays, essays, scripts, general nonfiction, etc. Genre labels are reductive — perhaps useful for finding a particular kind of book in a bookstore, but they tend to distort our expectations of any writer with some artistic ambition. The “horror” label was more of a problem during the ’80s, when horror novels sported covers with garish imagery and drippy red lettering. The boom in horror movies didn’t help, as most of those emphasized editing for shock value, jump scares and gory effects. Back then, if you told someone you wrote horror fiction, their perception of what to expect from your writing was too often based on that imagery.
In most of my work, I’ve avoided the standard tropes of vampires, werewolves, giant monsters, etc., instead writing about the everyday fears which haunt us all: death of a loved one, our own mortality, illness, loss of mental acuity, loneliness, etc. When I do use a standard horror trope, I use it metaphorically, connecting it to those everyday human fears.
What's the appeal of that sense of fear? What in readers makes us crave it?
H.P. Lovecraft famously wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” By the time infants are six or seven months old, they have developed the rudiments of that primal fear. We are pressed to deal with this emotion all our lives, and it becomes worse as we age, learn the implications of our mortality, and discover all the terrible things which can happen to us. Human beings are also masters of denial, and their refusal to accept the realities of their condition is increasingly problematic as the evidence becomes undeniable.
Horror fiction affords us the opportunity to face those fears in a safe setting: in a movie theater, in front of a TV, or in the pages of a book. For people who enjoy horror, the scares provide a thrill and a healthy catharsis, a release of tension. They have faced the monsters in their closet, and they have survived the experience. Some of those monsters are from the exterior, but some come from the dark impulses within. Horror is a useful way to deal with both…although I hasten to add, it’s no substitute for therapy.
How do you think scares differ between those on the page and those we witness on the small or big screen?
The advantage of visual art is it can show you the horror. That’s also its disadvantage. For most of us, the monsters we imagine are far more terrifying than the monsters we can see and share with other audience members. When we’re reading a story, we tend to fill in the blanks with details from our own personal anxieties. No two readers experience exactly the same story.
The other major difference is external versus internal experience. Stories on screen are presented as images — the internal life of the characters are illuminated or implied via dialogue, action and the suggestive qualities of the imagery. Prose allows a writer to fully explore a character’s thoughts. In most of my stories, I try to give my protagonists rich internal lives which are key to the drama happening around them.
Speaking of the drama happening around us, you have a whole section about climate change on your website; can you expand a little on why?
I believe climate change is our greatest existential threat, made even more difficult by the trouble we have in grasping it as a concept. Human beings like to believe we can at least understand the land beneath our feet and the sky over our heads. This is home in its most basic sense, and we want to trust it. Climate change is an example of a “hyperobject" — something massively distributed in time and space. It’s difficult for humans to get our minds around something so immense or to see our connection to it. We tend to believe we can’t affect something that large. We’d rather just dismiss it as something we have no control over. That’s a major barrier to getting people behind the necessary legislation and science to address climate change.
I’m not a doomsayer. I tend to be optimistic about humanity and technology. I view climate change as a problem to be solved. We’ve created this problem because of the things we’ve done to our home. I believe if we take the right actions, we can fix it. It certainly won’t be easy. It will involve not only curtailing the massive amounts of carbon we’re putting into the air, but also creating the new technologies necessary to remove the carbon that’s already there. In response I’ve supported such groups as Citizens Climate Lobby, 2030 or Bust and Healthy Climate Alliance [now the Foundation for Climate Restoration], through volunteering and my website and my Facebook page Climate Futures.
How has Colorado played a part in your writing career?
As I’ve mentioned, Colorado is where I came to learn how to write. But it’s also where I met my late wife, Melanie, and where I’ve raised a family, where I learned how to be an adult, and where I’m now learning how to be an old man. It’s an inspirational place, and its mixture of urban and rural, mountain and plain, snowy days and challenging heat provides a multitude of backdrops and emotional ambience for a range of stories.
For some time, Colorado has been a mecca for writers of all kinds. You can find serious writers almost anywhere in the state. Having a supportive and knowledgeable community of writers nearby is of incalculable benefit.
Favorite place to write in the state? Most inspirational to you?
I always take my laptop along on vacations, and I keep a pad and pen in the car just in case. I’ve started several stories sitting at a picnic table somewhere just off the highway. I’ve written at a B&B in Salida, motels in Pueblo and the Springs, in a two-room apartment above a bookstore in Fort Collins, in a restaurant in Walsenburg, a dorm room in Leadville, sitting in an auditorium in Boulder, and in my car at the Great Sand Dunes. We used to own a cabin up above Bailey where I spent a few weeks working on a novel while snowed in with our dog.
But to be honest, my favorite place to write is in my home office, surrounded by books, artwork and a few marionettes hanging from the ceiling. Originally that office was in the basement of an old Victorian in north Denver. Now it’s in a converted painter’s studio in Centennial once owned by Colorado watercolor artist John Rankin. Having plenty of natural light is a plus, whatever you’re trying to do.
For more about the author, go to Steve Rasnic Tem's website.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.