Spontaneous Human Combustion Foreword, by Brian Evenson
To say that it was a dream come true to have Brian Evenson write the foreword to this collection, well, that is an understatement. Brian’s writing has been a huge influence on my work, as much as Stephen Graham Jones, Cormac McCarthy, Mary Gaitskill, Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, and Will Christopher Baer. So here is the entire foreword, for your enjoyment. If this sounds like your cup of tea, please pick up a copy, out tomorrow (2/22/22) with Turner Publishing. I honestly think this is some of my best work to date.
Foreword for Spontaneous Human Combustion
By Brian Evenson
Before I knew Richard Thomas as a writer, I knew him as the editor of a neo-noir anthology called The New Black. What intrigued me about that anthology was how expansive his definition of neo-noir was. For Richard, it wasn’t simply a matter of contemporary writers imitating the conventions of noir, but of writers using noir and hard-boiled fiction as a springboard to get to their own unique, dark places. Some of these dark places were quite different from what we usually think of when we think of noir. The Weird was part of it, and darkness of various kinds, sometimes crime-related and sometimes not. Indeed, many of the stories are shaded into horror and the fantastic. From the first story, Stephen Graham Jones’ stunning “Father, Son, and Holy Rabbit,” I was hooked. What followed was a constellation of well-written stories that went their own distinct direction but still felt like part of a larger, ongoing conversation. The stories were definitely sympathetic with one another, but in a more varied and expansive way than most stories in themed anthologies are. As I read forward, it became clear to me that Richard was much more interested in creating possible spaces for fiction to go than in reining everybody in to fit a narrow definition.
There are two basic ways of approaching fiction. One is to write work that sits primly within accepted genre boundaries but tries to write exceptionally well within those limitations. Such fiction stays politely in its room and doesn’t wander out of the house. The other is to grab an axe, chop through the nearest wall, and then use some old warped lumber to connect your house to the house next door. It’s transformative, maybe even a little unhinged. As an editor, Richard is decidedly of the second school. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s that as a writer as well, and his fiction is all the more satisfying because of it. If you’re looking for typical horror fare, stories that situate themselves squarely in the genre of Horror with a capital H, you’ve come to the wrong place. Sure, you’ll find recognizable bits and pieces from that genre, the ghosts of the tropes you know. Richard knows the horror genre and isn’t afraid to use it for his own purposes. But those tropes, those gestures, are deployed differently, are truncated, left suggestive. You’ll find instead what Simon Strantzas has called, “the other kind of Horror, the lens of horror,” which “is a bit harder to define because by its nature it’s undefinable.” It’s Horror that’s “not about tropes, but about intention.”
In other words, the tropes, even when he embraces them, are not what give Richard’s work its coherence and its momentum. Rather, it’s his style, the economy and allusiveness of it, his ability to leave a door open onto the abyss even as a given story comes to a close. It’s also the particular way he uses that lens of horror: even when we are quite distant from what might be termed “real life” there are certain things his gaze always drifts back to. Family or intimacy, for instance, as a source of hope and loss and regret and pain. Richard is particularly deft at showing how familial joy and hope are the shining underbelly of the horror. For him, horror has a more intense effect if it’s the inevitable extension of heartbreak, guilt and blame.
For Richard, horror is something that clings to human connection and feeds on it as it dies. What makes these stories resonate for me is that they pry up the loose floorboards of my own fears, particularly the very personal ones, the ones that truly haunt me. These are fears that are deep-seated, almost foundational, because they’re so personal. Such fears raise the specter of failure: of my failing those who I’m closest to, of failing myself as well, of failing to be the self I’ve convinced myself and the world that I am. For many of Richard’s characters, it’s too late: they were right to be afraid because their world has already collapsed. For others, the sense of impending collapse, their sense (right or wrong) of the inevitability of it, is often enough to drive them away from the very things that give them solace. Sometimes they are so afraid they will destroy what they love that they flee from it in advance, cut themselves off. That, for me, is much more terrifying than the usual horror tropes, such as, say, things that go bump in the night or scary clowns.
All right, I admit it: I’m also afraid of things that go bump in the night. And also scary clowns. And especially scary clowns that go bump in the night. And it’d be remiss of me not to mention that Richard does have two scary clown stories here, but they’re different sorts of clown stories than we’re used to. One, for instance, puts us in very close proximity to the clown, to his dark and churning mind, and then…leaves us there in anticipation of what he is likely to do. The story stops as the darkness within his head prepares to spill out. The other I’ll leave you to discover on your own.
Richard opens the collection with a story entitled “Repent”, in which a crooked cop seems to be undergoing a sort of failed atonement. “It seems petty now,” says the narrator, “looking back, the ways I boiled over, the ways I was betrayed.” Indeed it does, once we discover the deal he has made and what he had to sacrifice to make it. There’s a way of telling this story that’s all plot, but Richard is much more interested in the character’s effect, in the emotional damage the narrator is still undergoing. In how this loss makes him feel. And in what, by proxy, this loss can make us feel.
Dwelling places are often isolated in Richard’s fiction, and shot through with heat. Characters are lonely or alone, either literally or metaphysically. The whole world is permeated with loss and regret. Characters are haunted by what they’ve done or, in advance, by what they might do. Rage is often bubbling up, threatening to erupt. There are memory gaps, holes. People struggle to remember who they are, experience disorientation from their own bodies (if it really is their own body). As one narrator suggests at the beginning of “Nodus Tollens”:
“I’ve been trying to find myself for what seems my whole life. Now, a dark fate has found me instead. I’ve summoned something; drawn its gaze down upon me.”
This is how the suffering begins.
Suffering, how it begins, how one becomes conscious (even hyperconscious) of the extent of it, and where it leads, is at the heart of Richard’s work. It makes his fiction as painfully tender as a bruise. Know thyself, counsels the Delphic maxim, but Richard recognizes that in the quest to know yourself you’re as likely to dig something else up, something that would be better left buried. And yet, you can’t stop yourself from digging.
These stories are often voice-driven. The voices that drive them are abject, uncomfortable. You might hear some version of them coming out of the mouth of the homeless schizophrenic on the El if you took the time to listen and could understand what he said. Nightmares abound here. There’s a story about the feeling of being trapped in a situation that repeats again and again, like a video game gone wrong, and the desperation that comes in trying anything, no matter how extreme, to try to spark a change. Or a story in which the narrator withdraws into a virtual world as his own body and the world around him collapses. Or a story about gambling (kind of), in which the loser ends up having to take on a decades-long burden. There’s a brother and sister who seem to be on opposite sides of a teeter-totter: when one thrives the other fades. There’s a son’s return from a traumatic otherworldly interaction. And much, much more.
Closing the collection is the excellent novelette “Ring of Fire”, perhaps the most ambitious piece of fiction in the collection, one that combines an initially mysterious rehabilitation effort with temptation and confusion. The narrator himself isn’t quite sure what’s happening—even though he often thinks he is—and as a result we have to read the story against its own grain, trying to construct the reality lying behind the story that he tells himself about how this world works. Richard, in this story and several of the others, gives us just enough to energize our reading and drive us forward, but quite smartly opts to leave a certain, crucial amount of mystery intact. This story (and indeed Spontaneous Human Combustion as a whole) continues to grow and expand within your head well after you’ve put the book down.
The stories in Spontaneous Human Combustion are quite different from one another. They participate in several other different genres—science fiction, the weird, noir, literature, etc.—at the same time as they always work as slow-burn horror. But despite the range of these stories, they all feel like they were written by Richard Thomas. Few writers understand misery as well as Richard does, and few are as willing to look with a steady eye at such flawed and suffering humans. Richard has a wonderful ability not to judge in advance, not to dismiss, not to villainize. He’s much more interested in zooming in his horror lens to try to see clearly and in vivid detail who people are, to try to understand them in all their abjection, contradiction, and pain. In other words, this is experiential fiction, something to be undergone, lived through. To live through these characters vicariously, with Richard as your guide, will give you a sharper and more empathetic understanding of the darkness of the actual world.
June 21, 2021
 Simon Strantzas, “Best Left in the Shadows” in the first issue of Weird Horror (Fall 2020).