Horror is a many-splendored thing, especially in the month of October. The genre runs the gamut, of course, from teenage splattery gore-fests to prim ghost stories of the sort that would give Edith Wharton fans cause to nervously nip at their scones in fright. And then there’s the literary sort of horror — the middle point between the two extremes — that can summon a sense of existential dread while also indulging in a few good jump scares for bloody measure. That isn’t a bad description of Colorado-born writer Matthew Lyons’s new novel, The Night Will Find Us.
We caught up with Lyons to talk about writing, terrifying clowns, Roxane Gay and Colorado…and how horror speaks to us all, no matter the season.
Westword: You describe your new novel as "in the tradition of The Breakfast Club" and The Blair Witch Project. I'm not sure of the size of the crossover in the Venn diagram of those two properties, but what are you borrowing from them?
Matthew Lyons: Well, both Breakfast Club and Blair Witch Project are studies of isolated groups trying desperately to escape the circumstances they've found themselves trapped in, and in so trying, find out what they're really made of. They're both locked-room stories, just on way different scales. With that in mind, The Night Will Find Us has sort of an inverted Breakfast Club setup: You have these very disparate characters being friends from the outset, but then they're slowly, messily pulled apart as the tension mounts. Detention is a fine crucible for forging friendships, but what happens when those friendships are put to the test with otherworldly, life-or-death stakes? Watching the three documentarians bicker nonstop in Blair Witch, we know that people are still who they truly are at day's end, faults and all. Hurt or not, just because Molly Ringwald kissed you today doesn't mean you're going to be any less of an angry, anti-social jerk when you wake up tomorrow.
So how did the idea for this book come about?
Like a lot of folks growing up in Colorado, camping was just a thing that I did with my family from time to time. Truth be told, I never quite found the love for it that other people did, but it definitely created a personal fascination with what I'll call feral places, spots around the edges, where the fabric (and assumed safety) of human society starts to crumble away. I've always loved writing those kinds of settings and situations, because the powerlessness forces both change and confrontation between characters. I also think that a story featuring almost exclusively high-schoolers was perfect for a horror story, because who's more aware of their own utter powerlessness than teenagers?
Are you a horror fan in general? Favorite scary novels?
Oh, absolutely. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a horror writer who isn't a fanatic for the genre. I grew up watching slasher flicks and reading Stephen King books, but the movie that really made me into the horror fiend that I am today is Evil Dead 2. After I saw that, it was game over. Horror was it for me, and I never, ever looked back. As for my favorite scary novels, I mean, how much time do you have? There are so many brilliant books out there that deserve to be read, but a few of my recent favorites would be Baby Teeth, by Zoje Stage, Wounds, by Nathan Ballingrud, and White Is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi.
What scared you as a kid? How did you deal with it?
I think my biggest childhood fear was probably clowns, honestly. Something about them always unnerved me. Weirdly, I ended up getting over that fear by reading Stephen King's IT, which I know sounds sort of counterintuitive; I suppose that finding out that there could be way worse clowns out there than the ones I was dealing with at the circus and birthday parties made the ordinary ones a lot less horrible. Full disclosure: I'm still not a huge fan of clowns, but I think I've pretty much made my peace with them at this point.
Aside from a starred review from Publishers Weekly, the book also has a killer blurb from Roxane Gay. I've heard that Roxane is a horror fan. Is that how she came to blurb the book?
A piece of mine titled "The Brothers Brujo" was featured in the 2018 edition of Best American Short Stories, which was guest-edited by Ms. Gay. The blurb actually comes from her introduction to that volume, which still wigs me out pretty considerably — in the best possible way. That my work wasn't just included, but somehow managed to rank mention in the introduction is sort of unreal. I was humbled and flattered by it back then, and I still am now. She's a writer I've long admired (Bad Feminist and An Untamed State are both knock-you-flat brilliant), because she's truly unflinching in a way that most writers can only hope to be.
So how did you move from short stories to a horror novel?
The move from short fiction to the novel also traces back to Best American Short Stories, honestly. My inclusion in the anthology was really thanks entirely to Rusty Barnes, the editor-in-chief of Tough Crime, the amazing journal that "The Brothers Brujo" was originally published in. Seriously, everyone, check out Tough, it's never not incredible. He sent the story out for consideration, and after BASS ’18 came out, I ended up connecting with my wonderful literary agent, Nicole Resciniti, who encouraged me to try my hand at a longer-form piece.
What are your favorite parts of writing in each form?
In terms of my favorite parts of writing short stories versus writing novels, they're both super rewarding, just in different ways. It's sort of like talking about the difference between shots and cocktails: Like a shot of the good stuff, there's a purity and clarity of intent with short stories that puts the core of the piece front and center. As a writer, you have time to get in quick, hit as hard as you can, and trust that it'll have the intended effect. Conversely, novels, like an expertly crafted cocktail, are designed to be consumed slowly, to allow all of their different facets to shine through a bit more gradually. That way, by the time you're done, you're (hopefully) able to appreciate all its various elements and the specific ways in which they were implemented.
You're a Colorado native. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in west Arvada and was there for the first 23, 24 years of my life, at which point I moved to New York City for about ten years. Being out on the East Coast is one of the things that really informed The Night Will Find Us.
Is that why you set this novel in the wilds of New Jersey rather than your home state?
I actually really like New Jersey. It's a great place, but ultimately I suppose I'm less emotionally invested in it than I am in Colorado, which allowed me to take more creative liberties with the setting. Colorado's my home, so every time I write about it, I feel a kind of obligation to either get it right or not do it at all. Also, while Colorado's wildlands are breathtakingly beautiful, there's a mythical quality to the Jersey Pine Barrens that I've never quite been able to shake. With a million square acres of dense forest and plenty of ghost stories all its own, the more I learned about it, the more I knew I needed to write about it.
Is there a part of Colorado that helps you as a writer? Where are those places in the state that inspire you?
To tell you the truth, as a horror writer, all of Colorado inspires me. That might sound like a cop-out, but there's such a richness and variety to the different settings the state has to offer, and with Colorado's history already so storied, there's fear to be discovered everywhere. I'll give you an example: Last year, the Denver Horror Collective put out Terror at 5280, a collection of Colorado-based stories written by Colorado horror writers (including Lindsay King-Miller, Joy Yehle and Angela Sylvaine, who are all truly marvelous), which I was lucky enough to be included in. My story, "The Depths," was written about the legitimately insane fact that somebody thought it was a good idea to build stretches of suburbs over the bones of Rocky Flats. Colorado is rife with inspiration; you don't have to look far to find the darkness lurking underneath the beauty.
Matthew Lyons's The Night Will Find Us drops on Tuesday, October 20, just in time for Halloween.