What Scares You, Michael Sims?

Michael Sims is a literary scholar, editor, and cultural critic. His books have racked up or been short-listed for many awards, including Arthur and Sherlock, which was a finalist for the Edgar. He is a thoughtful, smart writer and researcher and a fantastic person to find at a cocktail party to chat.

In October 2023, Michael’s book The Penguin Book of Murder Mysteries will be released. From the description, it’s sure to be a delight, featuring “evil masterminds, suspect narrators, early female detectives, shipboard murders, and psychological and scientific inquiries” from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Given all this, I knew he’d be the perfect person to discuss fear with. And so we did.

What is your greatest fear?

I think it is still the one I developed way back in the Reagan years: nuclear war. The vision of complete and utter annihilation of much of society and all its infrastructure and protections, and then the haunting legacy of radiation. Deformity and monstrousness. I feel as if the apocalyptic fantasies of my Baptist upbringing have just been replaced by a human apocalypse—one caused by fear and hatred fueled by lies and power plays. One that most of us didn’t deserve. 

What was your worst nightmare ever?

I think my worst nightmare was about, well, the horror of embodiment—all the awful things that can happen to your body, but also the sheer shock and horror of being in a body. I dreamed that chunks of flesh were suddenly peeling off my arm like over-cooked chicken. I saw my white radius and ulna sticking out. Then I looked down: a toenail opened like the lid of a box and a snake crawled out.

What scares you most about the writing process?

The chasm between what I want to say and what I am able to say. The layers and connections that disappear during their journey between my imagination and the page. How sad I feel when I admit my deep-down yearning to write something powerful and significant and how impossible that seems for someone at only my level of talent. 

Do you have any horror movie dealbreakers?

Many. I’ve learned to be, it embarrasses me to say, timid about the visual images I let in to haunt my obsessively visual imagination. I am far less cautious about what I read. I even edited an anthology of the original bloody old vampire stories, which get quite, um, specific. What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Is there a particular scene that really haunts you still?

I still think often of how scary I found some scenes in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, ages ago when it was new. A teenage character’s dawning awareness of the magnitude of the risk to him and his friends. But it would be Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon that horrified and devastated me to the point that I will not read serial-killer stories even today, much less watch a cinematic version. 

What is your favorite monster/villain?

Well, “favorite” prompts me to mention my fondness for the lively but not frightening Creature from the Black Lagoon. I have a large die-cut lobby card of him in my office. But of more recent monsters I would choose the Demogorgon from Stranger Things. Come to think of it, I have him too in my office: a foot-tall toy that my girlfriend gave me. 

Do you have a childhood memory of your parents or other trusted adults being truly terrified by something?

I grew up in Tennessee and eventually lost to tornadoes some family members, neighborhoods, cherished family homes. But my mother was terrified even of everyday thunderstorms. I wonder if there is a biochemical aspect: she seemed to be terrified during the very moments when I was exhilarated. She remained scared of storms until her death, and I remain rather thrilled by them to this day. 

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

I don’t think I fear it. I’m not religious and don’t believe in any aspect of an afterlife or in the existence of that curious entity called a soul. I don’t want to die because I’m having, mostly, a good time, and I have a young son to raise. But I hope that at least I am conscious at the end and get to experience it with as much attention as my bodily state at the time will permit. It will be too late to write about it, which is a damn shame, but I want to be present for it. No passing away in my sleep, please.

Michael Sims’s 16 books include Adam’s Navel, which was a New York Times Notable Book and a Library Journal Best Science Book; The Story of Charlotte’s Web, which the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and numerous other venues chose as a Best Book of the Year; and Arthur and Sherlock, which was a finalist for numerous international awards, including the Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America. His books are widely translated around the world, with most recently an Italian edition of The Adventures of Henry Thoreau, featuring an introduction by Antonio Moresco. His literary scholarship includes The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel; the first best-of collection of Maurice Leblanc’s stories of Arsene Lupin, which inspired the hit French series on Netflix, Lupin; and anthologies of genre fiction that are also widely translated. Sims’s shorter writing appears regularly in the New York Times, Washington Post, Times Literary Supplement, and other periodicals. His public talks have ranged from the cultural history of Mars to the natural history of vampires. He has been interviewed from CBS Saturday Morning and the BBC program Woman’s Hour to NPR’s Morning Edition, the tabloid TV program Inside Edition, and the Spanish-language pop-culture magazine Quo