Entering the World of Horror – A Class Discussion with Michael Rowe

On Thursday, March 6th, author Michael Rowe transformed a stifling, windowless lecture room in Sid Smith into a haunting Northern Ontario town—the setting of two of his horror novels. Before speaking to the Fantasy and Horror class, taught by Professor Johnstone, which was studying his first horror novel, Enter, Night, Rowe  gave a reading from the prologue of his latest novel, Wild Fell. Although being read to aloud, in a Sid Smith lecture room of all places, does not usually ignite the same feelings in me as, say, being curled up with a book in your home with your imagination given free reign, I was immediately sucked in by the beautiful prose of the truly chilling tale. It had that quintessential “ghost story” feeling, with the small town, two naïve teenagers, rolling fog, and transparent figures. It was the writing that made it stand out to me, and his delivery of it; I was able to forget that I was in an evening lecture, and truly felt the terror of the character.

Rowe began by saying that he enjoyed the lecture on Enter, Night—noting that university students are able to understand things that people who are paid to review books do not. After that ego boost to the dozens of students in the room, Professor Johnstone and the students engaged Rowe in a Q and A about his novel. The class touched on many aspects of the book: the setting, the socio-cultural elements, the tropes of vampire novels, and the horror genre in general.

Parr’s Landing, the Northern Ontario town in which the novel takes place, was actually inspired by Rowe’s own canoe trips in Northern Manitoba. He was struck by the absolute isolation, and thought that Northern Ontario was a more than suitable site for a gothic horror story. In speaking about the Canadian novel, he noted that the Canadian psyche is  constrained by realism, but it also secretly recognizes that “there could be monsters out there too.” He wanted to use the gorgeous Canadian landscape to expand realist boundaries and explore the Otherness that it could contain. As well, from his time spent living in Milton, he knows that small towns can be “petri dishes of pure evil,” whereas a city with a big population waters that down. The feeling of being constantly watched by his neighbours gave him the inspiration to write a small-town horror story.

For plot reasons it was important that Parr’s Landing didn’t have technology, so Rowe set the story in  1972. Breaking Professor Johnstone’s class rule to never mention those books, he joked that when you add technology to the vampire story you end up with Stephanie Meyer, and a vampire that wants to spend eternity in high school.  He was inspired by the old-school monster stories: Anne Rice, Frankenstein, Dracula, vampire graphic novels from the 1970s. He wanted the “full on, turn into a bat, holy water in the face” experience of 70s monsters, turning away from the new and improved vampires that authors have been clamouring to write since Meyer’s success.

There are many socio-cultural elements in the novel, which came out of Rowe’s background as a journalist. The residential schools, regressive sexual attitudes, and lasting impacts of colonialism are the real horrors of this novel. Rowe’s research involved reading reports about gay aversion therapy and First Nations residential schools, which were “absolutely horrifying” to him. The horror novel is the perfect medium to explore these issues: “with a literary novel, if you did both gay aversion therapy and residential schools, it would be overkill.” In a horror novel, nothing is overkill when you also have vampires running rampant. He noted that in the past 30 years, the horror genre has been tackling more real issues, but that it still “gets the rough end of the stick.” In a literary novel, if you don’t like it, “that’s just art and it’s your fault if you don’t get it…you’re just a peasant.” But he continually emphasized the real value in horror. Horror “lets you tell the truth.” It gives you the ability to write about the human condition, augmented with supernatural elements of course. For Rowe, the horror genre is especially easy for him to write, because of his positive nature: he can “look at the dark because [he] can observe it,” without getting sucked in.

I’ve been to a few talks by authors, and they’ve all been lovely, but the discussion is often quite shallow. Which is fine, but you can tell that most of the audience is asking a question for the sake of telling their friends, “I spoke to [insert notable author]!” It’s the usual “how long did it take you to write this book?” and “why did you choose this title?” But Michael Rowe’s talk was different. The students were passionate about this novel, and their enthusiasm showed. Question after question began with praise for Rowe’s work, but went further than the usual vapid congratulations. One student was quick to share his dissatisfaction with a certain character’s demise because he thought they deserved to suffer more; this is the sort of complaint that only a truly invested reader can make. The questions delved far below the surface, asking  if Rowe thinks there is value in books being meant for entertainment (he does: “When you sit down to write a ‘message’ book, you’re in trouble because your reader will feel lectured to”), and what  inspired  certain death scenes (which students admitted to shedding tears over). The passion for the book made all the difference, and Rowe gave enlightening, intelligent answers to all.

-Contributed by Emily Maggiacomo

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