Sunday, May 14, 2006


Ann and I first met Mike Arnzen at the first World Horror Convention and took an instant liking to him. He's a knowledgeable, friendly, quite funny guy who also happens to be an excellent writer. Back then, he was, along with Poppy Z. Brite and Kathe Koja, one of the Dell/Abyss discoveries. His novel Grave Markings won the Bram Stoker Award. He has also won the International Horror Guild Award and had many of his stories reprinted in year's best anthologies. He is a college teacher, an exporter of gorelets, and now has another novel, Play Dead, out from Raw Dog Screaming Press.

Structured in 52 chapters (like a deck of cards), Play Dead is a tale of gamblers who play poker with photographs of their murder victims. Praise includes a blurb from the wonderful Lance Olsen:

" ...a masterpiece of eloquent depravity" -- JA Konrath
"...a fast-paced, brutal, gritty, and unflinching novel." -- Cemetery Dance
"Play Dead reads like white lightning...wonderfully grungy...the richly metaphoric style begs for savoring on every page." -- Lance Olsen

You can find more information about the novel here. (And here are a few other cool links.)

Mike was kind enough to walk the plank via email recently...

Michael A. Arnzen Walks the Plank

Why should readers pick up your book as opposed to, say, just about anybody else's book?
Because if you picked up anybody else's book, you might hurt yourself. PLAY DEAD exceeds all safety regulations, and even contains gently vibrating hand massage technology around the base of the spine, making it a pleasure to hold when you read in bed at night. Its print is also not only easy on the eyes, but also adjusts to the reader's eyesight; there's no need for glasses, and early reports suggest that its auto-focusing print in some cases even acts as a corrective. Screw Lasik eye surgery! A sick book is much more effective.

Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?
Society cannot be redeemed, but let me try to answer this anyway. Beyond functioning as a technical manual in how to win friends and influence idiots, PLAY DEAD is--and I'm not joking here--ultimately a repellent inquiry into the pathology of gambling addiction. The novel explores the world of down-and-out poker players living in a homeless shelter who start committing murder just for the chance to sit at the table of a very strange poker game. To play the game, they have to create their own deck of cards out of photographs of their murder victims. I like to tell myself that when I write a novel, I'm exploring a social taboo or a vice that I don't really understand very well, trying to figure out what makes society shun it. So maybe in the process, my work sheds light on those issues. The contrived murders in PLAY DEAD--while outrageously orchestrated like something out of The Omen--are analogues to the destruction spawned by gambling obsession in some people's lives.

But I should just shut my trap. Writers are notoriously bad at interpreting and justifying their own work and, even with a Ph.D. in Literature, I'm really no exception. The only social benefit of writing a book like this is that it keeps me--and anyone who likes reading my work--off the streets, where we would do far more creative damage, I'm sure.

Does your book have any medicinal or mental health value to readers?
I've heard that--in addition to curing eyesight--it can irrigate wounds quite nicely, but because it is a hardcover, it requires a very large wound, and such wounds are often too fatal to successfully test this rumor. Mental health is a fallacy, and if it were real, there would be no value to it anyway. PLAY DEAD, like most horror fiction, reminds people of that.

Assume your book has been filed under "Ages 8 to 12" in the children's section, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. How horrified do you imagine a child would be after reading your book, and why? How many years of therapy would the child take to recover from the experience?
They'd likely develop an intense fear of playing cards and therefore never be able to endure Alice in Wonderland, suffer those insufferable self-appointed Tarot card readers, pick their teeth, use flash cards to learn mathematics, or ride on a lengthy plane trip ever again. Reno would be off limits as a travel destination, and a visit to Monte Carlo would drive them into a terrifying tuxedo-wearing state of apoplexy. They'd never recover from this trauma, unless they murdered every person in the world named Hoyle. And that would take them until they were 97.

Strange-but-true fact: PLAY DEAD was initially categorized in the national book databases under the subject, "Games--Fiction," rather than ("Books--Wicked Scary") and I'm sure it actually did find its way into the hands of children nationwide, who are emulating it with their families and friends as we speak.

Why don't you write more about cute stuff?
This is exactly what my Grandma used to ask me, while spooning moldy molasses into my toothless mouth with a rusty, sharp-edged ladle she'd just used to plant mushrooms. Years later, once the corners of my lips healed, I wrote "Fuzzy Bunnies," a poem as an attempt to appease her and all the other people in my life who say "but you look like such a nice boy!":

Fuzzy Bunnies
by Michael A. Arnzen

the eyes roll back
and accusingly glare
when my feet slide forward
and hot rabbit innards
squirt between my toes

only then do I see
why these furry white skins
are called slippers

(originally appeared in Gorelets: Unpleasant Poems (Fairwood Press,

Obviously, like many people who write and love horror fiction, I have a juvenile approach to all things cute...and this is why I probably shouldn't write children's literature. Or maybe I should. But even if I tried to do it, I'd be sort of like Lennie from Of Mice and Men--eventually, something would get its neck broken. Cute never lasts, anyway. Everything cute corrupts. That's all I'm saying.

If no one buys your book and you are unable to continue publishing your fiction due to the intense vilification that occurs in the media, what line of work will you go into?
Wait, hasn't this already happened? Oh, you mean the vilification of Michael Arnzen, not of the written word in general. Well, that hasn't happened completely yet, but, like a gangsta rapper, I am "illified" if not "vilified."

Okay, let's see... if I were marginalized by the already marginalized people who read me--trembling on the event horizon on the edge of a black hole of obscurity--and I wasn't even able to keep my current day job as tenured professor because I had violated all that was holy about "academic freedom"--I think I'd probably try to get into that lucrative field known as "quantum physics," as quickly as possible. I'd like to understand what it is that's swallowing me up, turning me inside out, and spitting me back out through the soiled hole of the space-time worm. But, naturally, like all writers, I don't think I'd ever stop writing, even without an audience, even without a pen, even without hands, when I'm inside out. When I've reached the end, I don't just want to "go out screaming"... I want to leave an artful stain. Just like the way I came in!


At 5:15 PM, Blogger Lance Olsen said...

Hey, I wasn't kidding about Mike in my blurb for Play Dead. He's an amazingly talented writer, and Play Dead is an amazingly sophisitcated, fun, creepy piece of avant-horror. So check it out this very moment. Well, get the kids off the street first. And your pets. And all the gardening implements. Then check it out.

At 7:24 AM, Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

You're right about Mike being an incredibly nice guy. When I went to ICFA for the first time in 2003, and didn't know a soul there, Mike took the time to talk to me and introduce me to other folks. He'd seen my name in the HWA directory (I was still a member back then), and did a great job of making the experience not nearly as overwhelming as it could have been. I don't think I ever thanked him properly for that.

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well you’ve got me sufficiently interested in Play Dead to but it. I read the first chapter and it was great. But that’s not my real reason for replying. I went over to Amazon to look up Play Dead and they have it paired up with the DVD of Brokeback Mountain. Seems like an unlikely, but amusing, pairing.

Keep up the good work.

At 3:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Q: Dearest Michael: When I was in junior high school we had to take a personality test of approximately 150 questions. It was supposed to determine what type of employment we would prefer. I have been a death investigator and an insurance salesmen in my professional career but the exam stated that I would want to be a "Florist." Needless to say all the kids teased me, even the ones who were predicted to be "Dancers" and "Artists." I wanted more than anything to get "Bounty Hunter" but it escaped my grasp. If you were not a writer what would you be doing, both on the surface and under the cover of moonlight? Everybody has two existences after all... -- John Hubbardsportsbook
A: Great question, John! First off, these surveys are about as trustworthy as one of those robot gypsies they have in coin booths at the carnival, so don't fret that some computer survey thought you should become a florist rather than a bounty hunter. You obviously chose well despite this, becoming a "death investigator" and "insurance" person (both are related, I think!)...and, hey, pretty flowers are for graves, as any good death investigator knows, so the florist thing wasn't too far off. But I can understand your disappointment.

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Arnzen holds a Ph.D. in English and presently teaches graduate studies in "Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction Program " and undergraduate English courses at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania,Costa rica tourswhere he lives with his wife and cats.

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