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Michael Harris Cohen - Excellently Executed Versatility

Michael reached out to me about doing a review for his recent release Effects Vary, and when I say he's the nicest guy in the world, I mean he's the nicest guy in the world. I was blown away by his collection, and how different all the stories were. Various types of horror, styles of writing, topics: you name it and he was spot on with it all!

He's a wonderfully supportive member of the horror community, and certainly a talented addition to it. Carry on and check out what he had to say, and then go get your hands on Effects Vary!

1. You use so many different styles/approaches in your collection Effects Vary – do you have a particular favorite, and a least favorite?

I find each story dictates its own style, and to try and force it in a preconceived direction often winds up with me hitting a roadblock. Though sometimes I start with a formal approach, like writing it as a letter or according to a spatial constraint—like two of the stories in this collection, divided by rooms in a house (“Done to Scale”) or an asylum (“Better than Healed”). I suppose it also may have something to do with what I’m reading in the moment. Years ago, I learned to quiet the anxiety of influence and embrace it. I’m an omnivorous reader, so sometimes I think I’m, unconsciously, channeling Brian Evenson or Michael Wehunt. Other times it might be echoes of non-horror authors like Samantha Hunt, Cormac McCarthy, or George Saunders that infiltrate the language and style.

2. Of the short stories featured in this collection, which scenario is most terrifying to you?

I wrote a column for Nicholas Kaufman about this here. I discovered late in life that I suffered from mild claustrophobia—though it feels anything but mild on the rare occasions when it strikes. Two stories in this collection (“The Wishing Box” and “He Dies Where I Die”) tap directly into that. They unnerved me big time while writing them, more than most of my other stories. Of all the terrible fates my characters may suffer, the ends of these two MC’s feel the most terrifying.

3. If you had to choose between being a character in a supernatural horror or a creature feature, which would you choose?

Definitely supernatural horror. I’m supernatural-curious. Though I’m also a skeptic. I’ve always wanted to experience definitive proof of other forces at work, beyond some amazing psychedelic experiences I’ve had. ;)

Of course, if I’m a character trapped by a malevolent supernatural force, bent on devouring my soul, I imagine I wouldn’t be so cavalier. Still, I’d take demonic possession over a werewolf any day. I’d rather be searching for a spell book in the crypt than running for my life from a bloodthirsty beast.

4. What frightened you most as a kid, and does it still scare you?

So many things. I was absolutely a scaredy cat as a young child. I could barely watch anything scary. My family went camping all the time and I used to be terrified of random sounds in the woods. Sadly, none of these things scare me anymore. In my teen years something shifted. The dark punk spirit manifested in me, alongside a lot of crazy teen shit. I began to seek out that fear buzz. I think horror became a kind of another drug for me, in a way, but one that made me feel better, through catharsis, etc. The scarier the better—especially early Stephen King, Cronenberg and a handful of others.

Obviously, though, I’m grateful to that scaredy-cat kid. I think the overactive imagination I possessed as a child has served me well as a writer, a teacher, and a parent.

5. What do you look forward to most about the Halloween/spooky season?

So many things. It’s absolutely my favorite holiday, alongside my girls. We love dressing up and decorating our various crappy apartments—from Minneapolis, to NYC, to here in Sofia. I love taking my kids trick or treating (or did when we lived in the US). I love going to a Halloween party and seeing everyone in costume. It should be a monthly holiday. Masquerades are good for the soul.

6. When you’re reading or watching horror content, do you prefer slow burn, or starting with a bang and non-stop action?

I like both but if forced to choose I’d favor the slow burn over the action. I’m a film fanatic and cut my teeth on a lot of art films. I really dig it when a movie can be well made, with a strong directorial style, rich characters, and scary. Recent examples are the Danish, Speak No Evil, and the Macedonian witch story, You Won’t Be Alone. Both are slow burn masterpieces that crept under my skin in different ways.

7. If you get struck with a case of writer’s block, do you have one particular way to beat it, or is it trial and error finding a process that works best for you?

It’s usually trial and error. I find it’s best to plunge on ahead, no matter how awful the writing might seem. If I’m really struggling, my standard trick is to set a timer for 30 minutes and tell myself I must write for that time block before I can stop. Most times, when the timer goes off, I find I’m back into the flow and don’t want to stop writing.

8. Do you have any specific goals with your writing, or is it primarily the enjoyment and a creative outlet for you?

I’m not especially goal oriented in my work. For me it’s mostly the pleasure of entering the tunnel of the imagination and seeing where it takes me. Publishing is nice, too, though one has little control over that beyond getting their work out there. Otherwise, I sort of take each piece as it comes.

9. What would you do if you were offered the opportunity to spend a weekend in a notoriously haunted castle?

As I said above, I’d love to have an actual encounter with the supernatural. If the offer comes, I’m there. I’m accepted into a residency at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland (it’s been delayed two years because of the pandemic, but hopefully I go there this summer). I’m hoping some erudite, castle spirits haunt my dreams and inspire my words.

10. Do you believe that psychological horror, or physical horror, is more effective for long term impact?

I think psychological horror tends to stay with me longer, though certain body horror scenes have looped in my head for decades. Probably a good combination of both is most effective. The body horror that comes up in writers like Evenson, Hailey Piper, and Laird Barron has real staying power.

Where you can find Michael:

Twitter: @fictionknot

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