Alex Smith is the author of Muzzleland Press’ latest novella, HIVE, a Cronenbergian descent into urban paranoia, reproduction, body horror, abortion, and so much more.
What is HIVE?
HIVE is a short book about a couple that move to a nice new apartment in Queens, only to find their darkest fears about parenthood, life, death, and birth will be realized. HIVE is so short that saying more gives it away. I had this great experience of reading a short book called The Beckoning Fair One from start to finish on a flight from New York to Las Vegas. I wanted to write something that could be read in one or two sittings (with or without air travel) but that had enough substance to feel like a light meal, not a snack. I like to think of HIVE as a horror story where the characters matter as much as the horror.
What drove you to write a story about such a controversial topic—in this case, abortion?
I think loss, anxiety, and real-life challenges often form the backbone of a good horror story. In The Shining, Jack isn’t just a guy who has run afoul of a possessed hotel. He’s a guy who’s struggled to control his drinking, and in the recent past he’s hurt his son, his wife. He wants to redeem himself, to provide for them and protect them, all while climbing up the crumbling hill of life.
I wanted to step over the disagreements about policy on abortion, and into the messy grey area of two people making a difficult decision, and, in the shadow of their decision, move into horror territory.
That the topic can be sometimes so taboo and secretive and scary is what compelled me to see if horror could have something meaningful to say about it. If there is one statement I think the book makes about abortion, it’s that people making the decision most often don’t make it lightly.
What movies or books influenced the story?
I think The Strangers may have had the biggest impact on me. Maybe it was the great acting. Maybe it was the drab lighting, or that we begin in the middle of the end of a romantic relationship. Regardless, I believed that those characters existed, and that made the dread and the horror much more powerful for me. I wrote an outline for a short story called “Closed Circuit” on the year of its release, which would eventually become HIVE.
I also read Joe R. Lansdale’s The Nightrunners a few years ago, and he inspired me to plumb the depths of trauma, not to flinch away from the tough stuff. Characters can be flawed, sometimes selfish, without provoking the audience into a “waiting for them to die” mentality. Finally, I had been thinking a lot about Beowulf on later drafts of the book, considering HIVE from a classical perspective of heroes and pitiable villains, mothers, monsters, and the line humanity draws at the precipice of existence and nothingness.
I’m polishing an internet article where I discuss all of this in a little more detail.
Some of New York City’s lesser-known locations play a big role in the narrative. How much of that is based on your own experiences?
So much. I remember moving to Clinton Hill, Brooklyn in ’99, and there was this neighborhood I could drive to that had a very abandoned, industrial feel to it. There was almost zero foot traffic at night, and I would take my dog up there to run around in the abandoned lots near the East River off of Kent Street, and admire the city in total solitude. That neighborhood was Williamsburg, which is now a crowded, expensive SoHo across the river. The idea that the city can change so quickly, covering over what it used to be just years before, still mystifies me.
Having lived in a number of neighborhoods—some historic, some established, some “gentrified,” some down-trodden, some “rising”— I felt there was room in the book to poke a little fun at the way New Yorkers (and especially non-native New Yorkers like me) think about and perceive neighborhoods in the city, and the compromises we make and the hopes we have when we finally decide (or are forced) to move.
You have a background in poetry. Does your step into the horror world reflect your previous work?
Sometimes the two feel like different animals to me, or parallel lines that in some ways never intersect. But coming up with a line or a couplet, holding it in my head and turning it again and again, writing it, and then reworking it on the page brings a kind of scrutiny to style and image that is indispensable to me in prose.
If you go back and find my poetry—which is scattered around and variable in quality and focus—you’ll see that I am interested in dark stuff there as well, but that I do less narrating and more commenting and emoting. I have explored genre fiction in my poems, but mainly sci-fi. I don’t shy away from humor or the grotesque, which are two important parts of horror, for sure.
I started writing scary stories as a kid, and have published some horror stories over the years. In that way, and in my reading and viewing habits—and the marker drawings I did of Freddy Kreuger and the Dream Warriors when I was 7—the horror world is in my bones.
Who are your writing influences, generally?
Some that come to mind today: I loved James Howe, Alvin Schwartz and the D’Aulaures Book of Greek Mythology when I was a kid. I poured over Stephen King, Clive Barker and JG Ballard when I was in middle school and high school. I read Lovecraft, Michel Houellebecq, and Kenji Nakagami in college, among many others. Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro and Ishikawa Takuboku’s Poems to Eat kind of destroyed me and built me up simultaneously as a reader and writer, as did Coetzee’s Disgrace. I also read a lot of comics and manga: Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Kentauro Miura, and Takayuki Yamaguchi are burned in there.
In terms of other masters, I’d say Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Bulgakov, Turgenev, Akiko Yosano and Ryonosuke Akutagawa are still rattling around in my head.
Right now I’m re-reading Koji Suzuki’s Dark Water story cycle, and am halfway through The Ring. Like King and Barker, he writes what you and I have called “literary horror” in our correspondence, and he is magnificent at it. I aspire to his level of quality, for sure.
What do you do in real life when you’re not trying to scare our poor readers?
In real life I practice clinical psychology in schools and private practice. I have studied the intersection of neuropsychology and psychoanalysis and researched child creativity and story telling. I am currently a member of a work-group that studies and practices the diagnostic assessment of people with severe and persistent mental illness. My work as a psychologist could not be more fulfilling, and I’ve found that my connection to art and writing is a major asset in my work with kids and adults alike.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just finished a retelling of the first part of Beowulf that I’m calling “The Captain and his Quarry.” It belongs to a larger narrative that I’m extremely excited about—a kind of horror-adventure novel that I’m co-writing with long-time friend and collaborator Mike Reilly called The Descent. It’s about an ancient, advanced race of hominids essentially lost to history that are re-emerging, and the diverse group of humans who interact with them.
I’m also preparing a collection of stories that vary from the straight-up horror to the more ghostly and weird. I’d like to include two additional new stories with collection—I just need to make the time to write them.