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 I feel as if the apocalyptic fantasies of my Baptist upbringing have just been replaced by a human apocalypse—one caused by fear and hatred fueled by lies and power plays.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.
My husband, Art Taylor, is one of the most stable, rational, smart people I know. So I was excited to read his responses here, since I always wondered what rattles him (besides eyeballs…I know that from watching horror movies with him).
We’re also celebrating the release this month of Art’s much-anticipated collection of stories, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74, which you can buy right here. The collection includes all his award-winning stories, including “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 2019.
Let’s see what he has to say about fear.
What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? Or the scariest thing you remember from childhood?
Like a lot of kids, I was always one who stared suspiciously at the closet door or at the tree outside my bedroom window (one of the reasons why the movie Poltergeist impacted me so strongly). But beyond those common fears, one memory jumped immediately to mind as soon as I read this question.
Woods and fields backed up against the small neighborhood where I grew up in Richlands, North Carolina, and the boys next door and my brother and I spent a lot of our days tromping around out there—exploring the wilderness, cutting down small trees with our axes and machetes, building forts. One day, some group of us were climbing over a fallen tree by a small creek, and after I jumped from the trunk back to the ground, I turned around and saw that I’d landed near a snake hole—with a snake’s head peeking out, suddenly staring me down. The other boys still up on the tree trunk urged me on in different directions. Just step away slowly! Just jump back as fast as you can! Neither extreme seemed appealing—and so I just stood there, waiting for… what? I didn’t know. Petrified is the word that stands out—not only as a synonym for fear but also because I felt completely frozen, like I shouldn’t, couldn’t, move. Finally, one of the other boys crept up behind the hole and quickly covered it with the flat part of his own machete. But that snake’s eyes…. I remember them well.
Side note: Those fields and those boys next door were part of the inspiration for “The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74”—though this specific memory wasn’t included in the story.
Do you have a recurring nightmare?
For many years, I dreamed pretty regularly about tidal waves—with one or two specific images recurring: either a large wave rising high toward a tall building on the coast (as if I was an onlooker to what was happening) or else water crashing against the downstairs of my family’s house at the beach, pushing through the windows, flooding everything, and me in the middle of it all this time, fighting not to drawn in the onrush.
I’m not sure why these images have haunted me so consistently. Something about loss of control maybe, of being overwhelmed? There’s definitely a helplessness I felt whenever the nightmare hit.
I’d landed near a snake hole—with a snake’s head peeking out, suddenly staring me down.
How do you deal with fear?
Take a deep breath, and push through as best I can. Hope for the best. Be ready for the worst.
When I was in elementary school, I became inordinately panicked about a doctor’s visit—crazy upset with fear about having to get a shot, crying, thrashing around, even to the point of almost fighting against my pediatrician. Rose Pully was her name—a legend really in our part of North Carolina—and Dr. Pully wrestled me to the exam table one visit when I was upset about a booster shot, held me tight, looked me straight in the eye, and told me, firmly, sternly: “When it hurts, you can cry all you want. But until then, until it actually hurts, you don’t cry, you understand?”
Her words—the sternness behind them—startled me into silence. And those words have stayed with me these many decades later. (I’ve told this story to our son over the years as well, and now he quotes it back to me as well.)
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?
When you first read my story “Parallel Play,” you told me two things: You thought it was the best story I’d ever written, and you never, ever wanted to read it again. At its core, “Parallel Play” is about being a parent, protecting a child, and how far you’d go to protect your child. Would you die for your child? Would you…?
I have to admit that I didn’t realize myself how disturbing the story was—not until you told me. (Not sure this is the kind of “scariest” you meant with the question, Tara, but….)
What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Is there a particular scene that really haunts you still?
In my teen years, I went through a period where I read everything I could by Stephen King—and Pet Sematary troubled me to no end. The idea of love and loss and grief and wanting to get your loved one back—and then getting your wish, but not how you expected. Completely engrossing, and ultimately scare-me-senseless horrific.
Who is the best villain, fictional or in real life?
As I’m writing this, a news alert just popped up that the Trump administration is proposing changing school menus to allow more potatoes and pizza and fewer vegetables and fruits—and it crossed my mind that his particular brand of villainy too often seems like caricature, parody, an Onion article: Dastardly Dan stroking his mustache.
More seriously: I’m gonna skip the more villainous villains (Darth Vader, Hannibal, Voldemort) and go with Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s novels. Protagonist? Villain? Ripley’s a complex and compelling figure. As Tom says in the brilliant movie adaptation in 1999 (played there by Matt Damon), “whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head? You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.”
What’s worse: closed-in spaces or heights? Why?
I know you expect me to say heights because I have such tremendous anxiety about them; between atrium hotels and some hiking adventures that have taken us too close to cliff-side, I’ve had more opportunities for that fear to show itself. But it completely ruins me to read a story or see a movie where someone is buried alive in a box—that’s truly terrifying.
What’s worse: clowns or spiders? Why?
Clowns. They thrive on being unpredictable, and too often an undercurrent of madness or malice shimmers beneath all that face paint, no matter how wide the smile. (Don’t get me started on Stephen King’s It.)
ART TAYLOR is the author of The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense, to be published February 28. His previous book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has won an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, and several Agatha, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. He teaches at George Mason University.