Author of "There Is a Man in Edith's Home", the seventh story in The Fourth Corona Book of Horror Stories
Sam Rebelein holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, with a focus on Horror and Memoir. Before that, he graduated with a BA in English and Education from Vassar College. Sam’s work has appeared in speculative fiction magazines – including Bourbon Penn, Planet Scumm, Dark Moon Digest and Shimmer – as well as in Ellen Datlow’s prestigious Best Horror of the Year. His story “Black-Fanged Thing” was listed as a stand-out piece of 2018 on Barnes & Noble’s Sci-fi & Fantasy Blog.
HarperCollins’ horror and crime imprint William Morrow will publish Sam’s debut horror novel EDENVILLE in 2023, and his debut short story collection THE POORLY MADE ANDS OTHER THINGS in 2024.
What made you decide to write horror?
That’s a good question. I was a very easily frightened kid, up until high school. I loved films like Beetlejuice and Hocus Pocus, and anything RL Stine, but I loathed roller coasters and haunted houses with a passion. I dreaded going to the movies and seeing the big gnarly posters for whatever Saw movie was coming out next. I don’t know what prompted me to do this, but eventually I sort of forced myself to watch the entire Saw franchise when I was about fifteen. They’re now some of my favorite films. So I suppose there’s something in writing horror that’s about facing and owning our own fears?
I actually used to write comedy—I did a lot of sketch and improv through college. I wrote my first play, a bit of meta-horror called The Drunk and the Elephant, my senior year of college. One night, we had a full house, and one scene made everybody scream. After doing comedy for so long, I think I was used to making people laugh, and knew I could do it easily. But there was something that made that collective shriek feel even more earned, more exciting. I wrote my first short horror story, “Wag,” less than a few months after that. “Wag” was about a guy who lives in a bathtub and eats kids. The seed for that story came from driving down a forested road and seeing a full bathtub sitting on someone’s curb. I think writing allows me to get the haunting questions about things like that out. Whose tub is that? Why is it there? “Wag” answers those questions in the scariest way possible, just as my anxious mind would even if it didn’t have an outlet.
Do you write in any other genre?
I do! I love exploring sci-fi and fantasy, although whenever I do, it always tends to be pretty dark, so I never stray that far from horror. I tend to think of a lot of my stuff as slipstream, in that it bears enough horror elements that it can’t really be sorted into any other box, but it isn’t outright terrifying. I just think horror is the best lens to dig into greater human truths.
Do you have you a reason for doing so?
Humor is another genre I didn’t mention above. I love writing funny pieces, and I think it’s because humor and horror activate the same bits of the brain. Laughing and gasping use the same muscles. I think I just love that build of tension and release, whether it’s done through a joke or a scare.
What genres do you read? Is it all horror or have you eclectic tastes?
I have very eclectic reading tastes. I just finished Wild Seed by Octavia Butler, and it was gorgeous and haunting. But when I’m in the middle of a big project, I tend to stick to that form. For example, now that I’m in edits for my novel, I’m trying to stick to horror novels. But in addition to the horror novel I’m currently reading, I’m in the middle of a collection of fantasy stories, a book on screenwriting, and a paranormal romance by a friend of mine. It also tends to depend on the season. In change-seasons (spring and fall), I go for more genre-oriented work. In winter and summer, I gravitate towards more “classic,” “literary,” cozier reads, such as Edith Wharton, Toni Morrison, and JD Salinger. I put those words in quotes because I know those authors are considered Literature, but anything can be literary. I guess winter is just an easier season for me to settle into complex prose.
How much do you value reading the work of other authors?
I learn something valuable from literally everything I read. My writers’ group (shout out to the Tuesdayers) will often read a short piece together, as a sort of book club, in addition to reading each other’s work. Even the stories we don’t technically enjoy, we always aim our discussions towards why the piece didn’t work for us, and what we might do differently in our own work. So much of art comes down to taste, so I always find myself asking those types of questions, even when a piece really doesn’t click for me. Like, “This author’s use of dialogue I find truly boring. Why is that? What do I like in dialogue?”
Does reading other people’s work affect the way you write?
Absolutely ... one of my big worries about the novel I’m working on now is that its prose is shifting styles. It used to have more breath, closer to a Stephen King style (King tends to be an easy signpost when talking about horror). But my editor asked me to trim it a bit, so my prose seems to be shifting towards a tighter, more breathless pace. It’s not bad, but it’s frightening me a little because it’s different! I only need to trim about 5% off the novel, but even so, every word needs to really count.
Which authors inspire you?
I’m reading Thomas Harris right now (Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon) and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from his prose. He has such a tight, economical way of relaying information to the reader that I admire. I’m using a lot of what I’ve learned from Red Dragon in the novel I’m writing now. Other than that, my biggest inspirations have included Shirley Jackson, Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, Ray Bradbury, and Priya Sharma—among many, many others!
What are your favourite and/or least favourite tropes?
I find that ghost stories tend to be the sub-genre of horror for which I have the least patience. I appreciate slashers deeply, and I love monsters of all kinds. But ghost stories tend to also be mystery stories, ones that work towards a specific heart. I love stories that sort of shrug and say, “We don’t know why this happened.” Because so often in life, that’s how campfire stories go. For example, you could say, “Police found a cabin in the middle of nowhere, near here, covered in blood, but no bodies. No way to tell what happened.” And that’s the entire story. Ooh, that makes me shiver. But ghost stories often don’t do that. They do the opposite—you watch the main characters try to help the ghost or exorcise them or whatever. Once the fear is unravelled, where do you go? So that was actually the original seed for “Edith.” My writers’ group (shout out to Tuesdayers again) all did a prompt together that asked us to overturn a particular genre trope we don’t click with. I thought it would be interesting to write a story from the perspective of a ghost. Like, why do ghosts have to build their hauntings? The first night, it’s some furniture moving around, then some dishes break or something, and then the ghosts attack. Why does it take that long? What are the ghosts waiting for? Why not swing the chandeliers and throw the bedsheets around on Night One? Well, Edith was originally that ghost, and it was interesting to watch her navigate that space, poking at the man who’s suddenly occupying her home, then running away, like a child. Until I reached the end of the story and realized what she wanted—then I had to go back and tighten some loose screws in the second draft to make that ending work. She’s no longer a ghost, but the original seed is still there.
What should we be looking out for next from you?
I'm not sure when pre-orders for my novel will go live, but stay tuned! EDENVILLE is coming out next fall. It should be a fun time for anyone who hates eyeball horror, blood curses, spider-people, parasitic aliens, and narcissist boyfriends. You can get more regular updates from my Twitter @HillaryScruff. I made that handle when I was twenty, for reasons I no longer recall, and I feel like I can’t change it now. Oh well!