It’s Spooky Season and we’re featuring interviews from some of our authors whose books explore the horrors and vulnerabilities of a life lived. Peter Counter is the author of the essay collection Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays (Invisible Publishing, 2020), which combines pop culture criticism and narrative memoir, with exacting wit, heart, and humour.
“Counter’s brilliant essay collection Be Scared of Everything is a poetic and deeply thoughtful exploration of all the ways that horror permeates our everyday life, in ways both mundane and profound.”—Rue Morgue
Invisible Publishing: Peter, what makes a piece of writing spooky/eerie/horrifying?
Peter Counter: For me, horror is about decentralizing the human experience from the underlying ethics of a story. We naturally find comfort in order, which is built out of familiarity and human understanding. Horror introduces unfamiliarity by breaking the rules of order—the characters in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki begin to spiralize, the house on Ash Tree Lane in House of Leaves is bigger on the inside than on the outside—and suddenly we enter a state of uncanny narrative freefall. Our assumptions of safety evapourate as soon as we have to accept that the Babadook exists and is knocking on our door.
So it’s really about framing: how much authority is the storyteller giving to human assumptions? Not just their human characters, but the readers, too. The most unsettling horror stories leave you with questions about the how and why of whatever unhuman element is running rampant through the story. We want to know that if we hang the right talismans, or say the right prayers, that the vampires in our books won’t be able to get us at night. The best horror denies us this comfort.
IP: As you were structuring Be Scared of Everything, which authors/works offered you guidance or insight?
PC: When writing Be Scared of Everything I borrowed the language and tone of a variety of source texts in an attempt to capture certain types of atmosphere. Most overtly, I tried to mimic Arthur Machen in certain passages of the Led Zeppelin essay “Metaphysical Graffiti,” and the opening section of “Manufacturing Mephistopheles” is modeled after advertorial trade magazine writing (which is a way I pay my bills—how horrific!). Because it’s based on a vacation I took to Salem, the tone of “A World Made of Train Tracks” was inspired by John Hodgman’s Vacationland. I also borrowed a lot of Lovecraftian flourishes, but my editor, Andrew Faulkner, told me I had to stop using the words “eldritch” and “gibbous” every couple sentences.
The pessimistic philosophy of Eugene Thacker was a deep inspiration for this book all throughout. I was also inspired by Carmen Maria Machado’s Into the Dream House, which launched while I was writing these essays.
IP: What kind of catharsis did you experience during the writing of your book?
PC: It felt like an exorcism. The essays in Be Scared of Everything include ideas I had been trying to distill and articulate for years. When it was over, I found that whenever there was some kind of discourse on social media about UFOs, or zombies, or demons, or cannibals, I no longer had a desire to add more to those topics—I already said my piece. It was a deep satisfaction.
IP: And now that it’s landed in the hands of readers, what catharsis have you experienced upon hearing reader feedback on your book?
PC: It’s unbelievable. Be Scared of Everything launched in the second wave of this current pandemic, so I haven’t been able to promote it in any real-life, in-person scenarios. Often, it’s difficult to fully accept it’s a real, physical book on real, physical bookshelves. When a stranger reaches out to me and tells me they enjoyed it, then all of a sudden I realize I wrote a book, and that I am proud of that book.
IP: Is there a particular visceral scene in this work that stands alone for you as a favourite? Like, “I can’t believe I got to write this?!”
PC: Thankfully, with the exception of the shooting described in “The Shattered Tea Cup,” I have lived a relatively non-visceral life, so my non fiction tends to work through existential and cerebral horrors. That said, I get a ton of amusement knowing there’s a book out there containing the essay “Cannibal Symposium,” which essentially proposes that consensual cannibalism should be decriminalized. Only a sicko would write that, right? That’s pretty visceral.
IP: As we head into Spooky Season, do you have any beloved rituals (annual traditions or repeat film viewings) that you’re looking forward to?
PC: While I watch horror movies consistently throughout the year, Spooky Season is for TV comedies. I save up all the seasonal Halloween episodes of my favourite funny shows and watch them throughout October. The Simpsons, Frasier, Community, Key & Peele, the episode of Cowboy Bebop where a monster kills all the main characters, even the relatively understated spooky season The Office episodes.
The Key & Peele Halloween episodes in particular are some of my favourite half-hours of sketch comedy and they are proof that Jordan Peele was a genre auteur well before Get Out (which is also amazing). I highly recommend checking them out on the streaming service owned by one of the abominable Canadian telcos.
Be Scared of Everything is a frighteningly smart celebration of horror culture that will appeal to both horror aficionados and casual fans. Combining pop culture criticism and narrative memoir, Counter’s essays consider and deconstruct film, TV, video games and true crime to find importance in the occult, pathos in Ouija boards, poetry in madness, and beauty in annihilation. This is a book that shows us everything is terrifying, and that horror can be just as honest, vulnerable, and funny as it is scary.
Peter Counter is a writer exploring ideas of faith, violence, horror, identity and memory though criticism, creative nonfiction, and playwriting. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner, their grumpy cat, an old rabbit, and his family Ouija board. Find more of his writing at EverythingIsScary.com.