The Uncertain Journey of Shirley Jackson Finalist, Aftermath…

If there’s one person most surprised by Aftermath of an Industrial Accident being a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, it’s the author, Mike Allen. If there’s anyone who’s not surprised, it’s me. 

Last summer, I had the honor of sitting down with Mike Allen via Zoom to discuss Aftermath. Mike was generous with his time. Our conversation delved deep, not only into the poetry and fiction of Aftermath, but into the state of journalism, the frontiers of speculative poetry, and into what it takes to get work published. Mike’s insights were panoramic, informed by his journey not only as a writer but as a professional journalist and one-time editor of two respected speculative poetry and fiction publications: Mythic Delirium and Clockwork Phoenix. The content of that conversation covered enough important ground for poets and fiction writers to inform this article and several others. Mike has done a lot in the realm of writing, “My crowning glory and Achilles’ heel is that the things I’ve done can’t fit into a logline.”

After fiddling with our respective air conditioners on that hot summer day, me, in New Hampshire, and Mike, from his home in Roanoke, Virginia, we could finally hear each other and get down to talking Aftermath.

Mike has a big presence. He fills the screen with a gregarious and generous spirit. Within just a few moments of our (virtual) meeting, I had the sense that I was talking to someone who had a wealth of stories inside him. Of course, all humans have stories inside them, but it’s palpable for some writers like Mike. For our interview, he wore a black baseball cap with the white insignia of Mongolian folk-rock band, The Hu, on its face. The shape made by the entwined snow leopards called to my mind an elephant skull. That elephantine white symbol surrounded by the black canvas dome of his hat inadvertently mirrored the hoary white center of a groomed dark beard, all of this cut by a wide smile. 

Then, Mike’s smile wobbled, his thoughts visibly turning, “Oh! I probably should go get my book.” Mike ran off-screen for a couple minutes and came back with a copy of Aftermath in hand, the both of us laughing. The act left a strong impression on me of someone who has many thoughts but doesn’t spend too many of them on himself. 

Taking a cue from the elephant skull on his hat, the first thing we spoke about was the all-encompassing fact that it was late July/early August of 2020. We were in the middle of an ever-uncertain pandemic; things were shut down and perilous. People were dying, others were getting evicted, still more weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from. Small revolutions, beautiful and profane, were breaking through media talk barriers, and America was finally having some critical conversations about what we believe and what needs to change. Mike was coming off the back of promoting his anthology of A Sinister Quartet co-authored with Amanda McGee, Jessica Wick, and C. S. E. Cooney. At the tail-end of that book tour, book shops were closing up, events were postponed, and canceled altogether. The following month, Aftermath of an Industrial Accident was scheduled for launch. Promotion is the lifeblood of any new book, and all but one of the dates Mike had lined up to promote Aftermath were canceled. To promote Aftermath, he was going to have to innovate and do it quickly. Mike’s no stranger to guerrilla marketing. His first editorial success was in small part due to product placement, bodybuilder and Star Trek actress Spice Williams, and his wife, Anita’s, chutzpah.

Mike reflected: “I find myself asking, Does anyone need a horror book right now?” We stared at each other for a moment, eyebrows drawn down, sensing that the answer was knowable but still undeclared. 

Aftermath of an Industrial Accident was written as a follow-up to Unseaming, Mike’s short fiction collection that met with high praise. Unseaming went on to sell almost 10,000 copies by the time of this interview (it has since surpassed that number). “Maybe the Big Five–sorry, I think we’re down to Big Four. Maybe the Big Four wouldn’t be happy with those numbers, but for an indie press, that’s pretty sweet,” Mike said, speaking of the tendency for large publishing houses to cannibalize each other. According to some figures, the average book published in the U.S. sells less than 3000 copies in its lifetime ( Even a larger, more traditional publishing house wouldn’t sniff at 10,000 copies. 

Unseaming was hailed as a masterpiece by Laird Barron. It was praised for the quality of its terror and the beauty of its prose. Nathan Ballingrud, the author of North American Lake Monsters, proclaimed it “a fever dream.” It was also a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award in 2014 for Best Collection, the award ultimately won out by Gifts for the One who Comes After by Helen Marshall. Mike took it in stride, “I’ve found in my career so far that I’m like the indie band that no one’s heard of but that every band listens to.”

“Like Hawkwind to Pink Floyd?” I offered.

“Exactly like Hawkwind,” Mike laughed. 

Aftermath is a fever dream of its own. The quality of the prose is nonpareil; the narratives are fresh and new without trying to be novel. When it comes to horror elements, Mike doesn’t stick to one trick; he reaches for them all from hauntings, to psychological dread, to body horror that would make Clive Barker proud. Several of the offerings dare you to define them. 

“Longsleeves,” initially published by fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies reads easily as dark fantasy. That is if you like your fantasy very very dark. It begins with its character, Merav, waking in the aftermath of a gruesome attack and discovering her eyes now stare out from a fox’s head. The entire story dances at the edge of dream and nightmare but spends most of its time in the realm of nightmare. The creatures (people) within the story invoke a wonderment soaked in blood. 

The collection is hard to define, and yet it is unmistakably the follow up to Unseaming. “In my work with Mythic Delirium and any of my work as an editor, really, I’ve always been attracted to the kinds of things that would have a hard time finding a home elsewhere. More than any other thing I’ve written, Aftermath is reflective of who I am as a writer,” Mike explained. Then, squinting, he added with a laugh, “The only thing that could make it more complete is if some of my journalism were included, but I think we’d have copyright issues if I did that.”

“The Nightmare Avatar’s Nightmare,” poem is written with acclaimed poet, Christina Sng. It’s a strong offering, and I wouldn’t expect anything less. I dare you to define “Six Waking Nightmares Poe Gave Me in Third Grade.” Initially, I defined it as a poem, but it could be read as short fiction or even a short, creative essay. The salient quality is that Mike likes to write into the margins, fulfilling all the expectations of genre readers and breaking more while he’s at it. “Six Waking Nightmares…” is autobiographical in quality and takes us back to the beginning of it all, when a very young Mike could never know his future as a horror writer.

Yet the poem that haunted me most (pun intended) was “The Paper Boy.” The poem describes a family reacting to a dead teen found in an alley behind their house. 

all his blood emigrated through the new doors
moved out into the upholstery

cop had a laugh, said the boy came up short
owed someone meaner, had to pay exact change
no pennies left for his eyes

There’s something meaty and real and collective in quality to the horror found in this poem. Mike Allen works full-time as a journalist and revealed that the event that prompted him to write this particular poem came from his work as a court reporter. “Sometimes the act of reporting the most horrific stuff dehumanizes the victims.”

Humanization is a theme of the work; each character is drawn with compassion but not spared the sometimes cruel realities and irrealities of life. I confided to Mike that, like him, as a child, I had read Poe and Tolkien, and that something had happened, something that caused me to take to dark things with a more significant amount of trust than those kinds of fictions that seek to exclude those parts of life. 

“I came to horror as a way of wrestling with the darkness in human nature, the darkness in my own nature,” Mike said, speaking to the autobiographical quality of some of his poems. “I had to make peace with my understanding of the world. The fact that the things Edgar Allen Poe was writing about were not alien, but part of the human experience.”

When he announced this, it hit me and made things plain. I understood my own tendency to like dark things: they seemed to tell the truth and I turn to fiction and poetry as much for truth as I do for adventure. These sorts of work found all the things our minds want to reject as part of life and wove them into the narrative. It’s about acceptance and not only thrill. I found myself reflecting internally on the kind of catharsis that comes from reading work like Aftermath and on my own desire to escape the Jeremiad news cycle. And yet, in the middle of the pandemic, life had been stressful for me, but I found that I wasn’t suffering from the same psychological horror that others I cared about suffered from. I felt strangely spared the extent of shock and sleepless nights others had, spared the existential crisis, the headlines (and very real events) created in others. Not because I was brighter or wiser or more resilient. In fact, it felt as though the level of peace I had was gifted to me.

As though reading the new question in my mind, Mike said: “In a way, horror inoculates you. There’s an addictive quality to it as it produces a lot of chemical activity in your brain, but it also inoculates you.” Mike paused, wondering whether ‘inoculate’ was the best word given the situation the world faced. Then, after a moment, he nodded. “Yeah, it inoculates you. You come to accept that the worse can happen, and that idea maybe shocks you less than it does other people.”

And just like that, there was our answer. This was why people need Aftermath: with its blend of fantasy, it serves as a means of escape; its poetry creates a mystic headspace bordering on divine, and its compassionate unpleasantness satiates the same thrill we get on roller coasters. When you close its pages, the stories are–in a way–over, and you face your life stronger, a little more inoculated, a little more inspired. 

A year later and we’re still trying to climb out of the uncertainties of a global pandemic. Setbacks and victories roll out one after the other. In two short weeks, we’ll learn if Aftermath of an Industrial Accident has been selected for the Shirley Jackson Award, but between then, now, and hereafter, I have no question that it deserves it. 

Mike’s next book, Trail of Shadows, a dark fantasy/horror novel comes out in 2022 through Broken Eye Books.

Melanie Stormm is a multiracial science-fantasy writer who writes fiction, poetry, and audio theatre. Her novella, Last Poet of Wyrld’s End is available through Candlemark & Gleam. She served as guest editor for the issue 43.4 of Star*Line, the “All Black Everything” issue focused entirely on Black voices in the speculative arts. Find her in her virtual home at Wipe your feet before entering.

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