What Scares You, James Han Mattson?

Back in early October, my good friend John Copenhaver said, “Hey, you might like this new book that’s out. It’s about a scare house.” And yes, dear readers, I definitely did love this book. James Han Mattson’s Reprieve was the perfect October read for me, and honestly, if you need some creepy in your life (who doesn’t?), you should pick it up now. It’s about so much more than a scare house–race, power, greed, fear. James knows his shit.

Since he created one of the creepiest scare houses in fiction, I’m thrilled to have him stop by here and talk with me a bit about what scares him.

What is your weirdest fear?

I’ve always had this strange fear of fish. It’s weird because I come from a fishing family—my brother is a charter fisherman, and growing up, we fished pretty regularly, both on the Great Lakes and on smaller lakes. I always despised it though, and in the scrapbooks, you can find pictures of me as a child standing away from the fish I’d just caught, not wanting anything to do with it. Their flopping always disturbed me, and I hated the soullessness of their eyes.  

How do you deal with fear?

Meditation really does wonders for a fearful psyche. Bringing yourself back to your physical self, your breath, and concentrating on the present moment clears your head and allows fears to, at least momentarily, subside.

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

I’m not usually all that scared by novels, but one scene that’s stayed with me over many years is the scene in Salem’s Lot when Ben Mears has to put a stake through the heart of his love-turned-vampire, Susan Norton. It’s both sad and gruesome, and the lead-up to the scene, and the aftermath, had me gingerly turning pages.

What is your favorite monster/villain?

Freddy Krueger, mainly because he doesn’t take himself too seriously; he’s campy and funny and weird, especially in the earlier Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Jason, Leatherface, Ghostface, and Michael Myers try to be foreboding in their silence, and it can work at times (the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains one of my favorite horror movies), but it’s just not as fun. And Pinhead, the only other major horror villain that talks a lot—well, he takes himself way too seriously.

People often say death is their greatest fear. What are your feelings about death/dying?

I’m not really scared of death. I’m scared of dying, for sure, because of how absolutely cruel it is, but the abyss afterward doesn’t phase me. I think that whatever form we find ourselves in after death is so unfathomable to our current consciousnesses that any contemporary depictions of it are bound to be absurd.

What’s scarier: attics or basements?

Basements. Attics seem easier to escape—they almost always contain a window, and their floors double as ceilings, making them rife with all sorts of noisy possibilities. Basements are much trickier, escape-wise, and they’re usually damp, dark, cold, and full of all things creepy-crawly.

James Han Mattson was born in Seoul, Korea and raised in North Dakota. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has received grants from the Copernicus Society of America and Humanities North Dakota. He is the author of two novels: The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves (Little A: 2017) and Reprieve (William Morrow/Harper Collins and BloomsburyUK: 2021), which was named a best book of the year by Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Library Journal, and Crimereads, and was a Fall 2021 Book Pick by The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Chicago Tribune, O Quarterly, Entertainment Weekly, and the TODAY show, among others. He is currently the fiction editor of Hyphen Magazine.