Today’s guest is an author who’s book, A Cosmology of Monsters, has been blowing up the horror scene since its release in September. I finished it last month, and found it to be an amazing read (see my review here). And I’m not the only one who liked it, because Cosmology ended up becoming a nominee for the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Horror (and yes, I am jealous). So, I’m very excited to have the author today. Hailing all the way from across the Internet, I bring you Shaun Hamill!

Rami Ungar: Welcome to the blog, Shaun. Tell everyone here a bit about yourself and about your novel, A Cosmology of Monsters.

Shaun Hamill: I grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area, and got my bachelor’s in English from the University of Texas at Arlington. In my early 30s I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and got my MFA. I wrote most of A Cosmology of Monsters there.

A Cosmology of Monsters is a literary horror novel about a family running a haunted house attraction in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas. Narrated by the youngest child, Noah, the novel tracks the family’s fortunes across 50 years, and explores the monsters—both metaphorical and literal—that haunt them. It’s a generational saga, an homage to Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, and most importantly, a story about the ways love can either save or damn us.

RU: How did the idea for Cosmology come into being?

SH: This novel was born out of the wreckage of a couple of projects. The first was a sprawling tragi-comic saga in the style of John Irving or Meg Wolitzer, about a family operating a youth hostel in Taos, New Mexico. The second was a short story about a married couple breaking up as they tour a haunted house attraction. Neither piece quite worked, but one day while I was walking my dog, the two ideas put themselves together and I realized that my epic family business novel should be about a haunted house, not a youth hostel. It would give me a chance to merge my taste for character-driven literary fiction with my love for the darker, more eerie tones of the horror genre. Noah’s voice came to me right away, as did Eunice’s suicide notes and the romance that opens the book. The rest of it came organically, as I followed the story where it led, exploring my characters and their ever-darkening world. I was perpetually surprised by what I found. I would never have been able to plan a book like this, and I hope some of that dark joy of discovery carries over for the reader.

RU: What was the research and writing process like for Cosmology? And what challenges did you face in writing the book?

SH: Research was a big part of the process of writing Cosmology. When I started the book I had only read a few Lovecraft stories, and I hadn’t ever worked behind the scenes of a haunted house. I read all of Lovecraft’s fiction, and also spent time reading scholarship about his life and writing. For the haunted house parts of the book I relied on my own knowledge as a patron of the attractions, and a tour of an out-of-season haunted house that I took in my late twenties. I also watched documentaries about haunted attractions, listened to podcasts, lurked on message boards, and so on.

The biggest challenge of writing this book was the revision process. My first draft weighed in at 220,000 words, and the published version is just over 100,000 (my agent insisted that the book would be tough to sell at its initial length). Figuring out which threads of story could be condensed or severed altogether took a long time, as did rewriting the entire ending to make it smaller and more meaningful to the characters. It forced me to carefully consider my characters and themes, and brought them into sharp focus by the end of the editorial process. I’m very pleased with the result, and humbled by how much better my agent and editors made my book.

RU: Haunted houses, both literal attractions and metaphorical haunted homes, are a big part of the book. Are you a fan of haunted houses yourself?

SH: I’m a big coward when it comes to haunted houses. I used to have a group of friends that I went with when I still lived in Texas, in my mid-to-late 20s, but I would never go to one by myself, and haven’t been to one since 2012 or 2013. I’ve always been fascinated by them from a distance, though. I’ve wondered about the people who work there, what it’s like to have the scenes of your life play out against such a fantastical backdrop.

RU: If you could design a haunted house attraction, what would it be like?

SH: The attraction in the book, The Wandering Dark, is exactly my idea of the sort of haunted house I would like to run. If money and practicality were no object, I would love to do a haunted hotel—something more immersive and stranger than the typical spook-a-blast attractions in the genre.

RU: Do you see yourself revisiting the world and characters of Cosmology someday in a future story?

SH: I go back and forth on this question. Some days I think it would be fun to continue the story of the Turner family, and I have done some brainstorming for a sequel. Other days I think that a sequel would lessen the impact of the book’s final pages and cheapen it. I guess I’ll wait and see if there’s a market for a sequel and then decide. Even if I never write a direct sequel, I will probably find ways to weave elements of that world into future stories.

RU: What is it about horror in general that attracts you to it?

SH: I have a melancholy outlook on life, so horror fits my disposition. I’m not attracted to the gore or violence, but rather the atmosphere of dread and dark wonder that I find in my favorite horror stories. I don’t like being terrorized. I like being creeped out. I love the idea that there is something beyond the known world, dark secrets to discover. It’s the sort of thing that Lovecraft does in his best work, as does Thomas Ligotti. I also love character-based horror, like Stephen King writes. I love stories about good people struggling against supernatural threats. It’s an effective way to illuminate the strength of the human spirit, what’s most noble and wonderful about people.

RU: Are you working on anything now? Do you have any future writing plans?

SH: I recently finished a rough (and I mean very rough) first draft of a new novel. I have an outline for another, different novel with my agent. We’re trying to decide which project to pursue first. My hope long-term is to keep doing what I’m doing now—writing books and publishing them and (hopefully) getting paid to do so. Fingers crossed COSMOLOGY won’t be the only thing I get to publish!

RU: What advice would you give to other writers, regardless of background or experience?

SH: Write a lot and read a lot. Read deeply in your own genre, but also outside of it. Join a writing group or take a writing class if you can afford it. If you’re able, get on the reading committee for a journal or prize—I learned more from reading the slush pile for Carve magazine and the Katherine Anne Porter Prize than I ever learned in a classroom or working alone at my own desk.

RU: And finally, if you were stuck on a desert island for a while and could only bring three books with you, what would you bring?

SH: Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti, The Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore, and Three Novels by Stephen King (an omnibus of Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining).

RU: Good choices. Thank you for joining us, Shaun. I hope we can do it again someday.

If you’d like to find out more about Shaun Hamill, you can find him on his website and on Twitter. You can also find A Cosmology of Monsters on Amazon if you’d like to read the book (which I highly recommend). And if you are an author with a book coming out soon and are possibly interested in having an interview, hit me up on ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com, and we’ll see what magic we can conjure.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

Comments
  1. I’m struck by the amount of research and writing/rewriting that went into this book. (I mean, 220k to 100k . . . wow.) It’s awesome that Hamill stuck with it and produced such a successful final product.

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