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 I feel as if the apocalyptic fantasies of my Baptist upbringing have just been replaced by a human apocalypse—one caused by fear and hatred fueled by lies and power plays.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.