A quick interview with Matthew R Davis: Horror Writer

A new month and a new year! I’ve decided to kick off my author interviews with a foray into the horror genre. Matthew R. Davis is an author and musician based in Adelaide, South Australia, with around sixty short stories published around the world thus far. He won two categories in the 2019 Australian Shadows Awards (Best Short Story and the Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction) and has been shortlisted for both the Shadows and the Aurealis Awards on numerous occasions. When not writing, he plays bass and sings in progressive heavy bands like Blood Red Renaissance and icecocoon, performs spoken word shows with punk poets Paroxysm Press, dabbles in video editing, graphic design, and short film, and explores nooks and crannies with Red Wallflower Photography. His first collection of horror stories, If Only Tonight We Could Sleep, was published by Things in the Well in 2020; his first novel, Midnight in the Chapel of Love, is published by JournalStone in January 2021.

Credit: Red Wallflower Photography

From the blurb of Midnight in the Chapel of Love:

Jonny Trotter has spent the last fifteen years running from tragic memories of the country town where he grew up but now that his father has died, he can run no more. Returning to Waterwich for the funeral with his partner Sloane, Jonny must confront old resentments, his estranged best friends, a strange, veiled woman the locals call the White Widow and the mystery surrounding the fate of his first love.

A morbid and reckless city girl, Jessica Grzelak lived to push the limits and explore the shadows and no-one has seen her since the night she and Jonny went looking for the Chapel. Rumoured to be found in the woods outside Waterwich, mentioned in playground rhymes about local lovebirds Billy and Poppy and their killing spree in 1964, the Chapel is said to be an ancient, sacred place that can only be entered by lovers, a test that can only be passed if their bond is pure and true. Before he can move on to a future with Sloane, Jonny must first face the terrible truth of his past and if he can’t bring it out into the light at last, it might just pull him and everything he loves down into the dark, forever.

So now you’ve had a small intro to Matthew’s writing and life, let the interview begin …

In your bio, you mention a lot of different creative pursuits in your life, including filmography, photography, and musicianship. How do these interests influence your writing?

The more you see and do, the more experience you can pull from for your writing. I’m not a photographer, but spending so much time with a shutterbug (Meg Wright aka Red Wallflower Photography) has increased my interest in the craft and our exploration of abandoned locations has given me enough ideas for a novel on the subject; my love of song, and especially my time in bands, has proved a rich seam of inspiration for stories about music and musicians. I’m into many different artistic disciplines and they all feed into each other to give me a deep pool of experiences, and experience combined with imagination is all you really need to get those ideas flowing.

What’s your favourite short story that you’ve written and why?

That perfect tale I’m yet to write and probably never will. An artist spends their life striving to reach an ideal they can never truly articulate, but through that struggle, great work may be produced.

What speaks to you about the horror genre? Any other horror writers you’d recommend to readers?

I could write an essay or two answering that first question! In a nutshell: I love the freedom, the transgression, the imagination, the universality – not everyone’s been a spy or a detective or a selfish college lecturer who’s unnaturally appealing to beautiful young students, but everyone’s been afraid. And I guess I’ve always just been a bit morbid, because dark subject matter has always appealed to me.

My answer to the second question could just go on and on (and on), but in an effort to be succinct, I’ll limit myself to one old favourite, one modern master, and one new voice. Ramsey Campbell has been a big influence on me since my teenage years, and he’s essential reading for anyone with an interest in sophisticated chills; Laird Barron is an author I follow closely, and his blend of cosmic horror, hardboiled crime, and mind-bending weirdness is unparalleled; and Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth are terrifically enjoyable novels packed with necromancy, mordant humour, and unfettered imagination.

How important is the writing community to you? What kinds of support have you found on your writing journey?

I’m fairly solitary and insular as far as my craft goes – I don’t have a writing group or beta readers or anything like that. I sit in a room and I write and rewrite, and usually the editor of an anthology I’ve submitted to is the first person to set eyes on a story after myself. But I have made a lot of friends in the writing community, both locally and globally, and they’ve proven to be very supportive and helpful – decent, dependable, authentic people. And why wouldn’t they be? Our whole thing is making people up and seeing through their eyes, which requires a certain amount of sensitivity and empathy. Some writers do turn out to be raging arseholes, but the ones I know personally are thoughtful and caring individuals – especially the horror authors.

On the day I’m writing this, I went out for lunch with fellow Adelaide scribe Chris Mason and talked writing and writers for over four hours; Steve Dillon, who published my collection If Only Tonight We Could Sleep, has been a notably helpful figure in my nascent career and through him I’ve met a lot of delightful fellow authors; Scarlett R. Algee, the JournalStone editor who picked up Midnight in the Chapel of Love for publication, has proved an enthusiastic and understanding collaborator. I’m lucky to know these folk and all the rest, and I’m looking forward to meeting many more.

You’ve written and published a lot of short stories, including publishing a short story collection. Midnight in the Chapel of Love is your first novel. Was it hard getting into that novel writing space and do you have any tips for people trying to make the jump from short stories to novel writing?

It wasn’t hard at all, as I’ve been writing novels since I was in high school! This is merely the most recent I’ve written and the first one to actually be published. So as far as tips go, I’d say: if you plan on being a novelist, read widely and start writing novels as soon as you feel up to the challenge… and understand that your first few attempts will be terrible but highly educational. Then, just write and write until you finally crack it. I’ve written eight novels so far and half of them are unpublishable by my current standards. But I learned so much from writing them, and I’ll always love them for that.

Tell us more about Midnight in the Chapel of Love. What inspired the novel?

The initial inspiration came from listening to Something for Kate’s “The Fireball at the End of Everything” as I drove between Port Pirie and Adelaide one afternoon. There’s a line about a passenger putting their feet up on the dashboard and that got me thinking about a couple driving between the city and the country in the summer sun. I asked myself why they were doing this and decided they were heading back for a funeral, that the guy had grown up there and had a past he’d been fleeing for many years. Everything else fell into place after that over the course of the next six months or so, and then the writing began.

How do you think Midnight in the Chapel of Love is different to other books out there? (Give us your elevator pitch.)

Midnight in the Chapel of Love takes the Australian Gothic by the nape of the neck and drives it deep into the dark, fathomless depths of cosmic awe!”

I don’t really know how this book is different, other than that it was written by me and other books are not, but I do feel it has something substantial to offer. There’s a lot going on under the surface of what appears to be a fairly straightforward mystery, and while the implications are chilling to contemplate, there’s more here than a simple horror story. I’m not trying to distance myself from genre at all – this is just one tale I wanted to tell a certain way, and while it’s intended to keep you guessing and make you shudder, it also turned out to be an examination of the small town/big city divide, variations of Australian masculinity, the intricacies of romantic love, and so much more.

Some friends recently asked me to describe the book and I said, “It’s like Picnic at Hanging Rock with more sex and drugs.” That’s a crassly simplistic and reductive answer, but they laughed and wanted to know more, so I guess that works, too!

What was the hardest part of writing your novel? What was the easiest? Did you have to do any research?

I suppose the hardest part was getting the plot elements to click seamlessly together. There are certain questions that plagued me throughout the writing and only found solid answers as I neared the end. The easiest part would have to be the actual writing – once I knew what I was doing and where I was headed, I could just kick into gear and let the words flow.

Research has become a very important part of my process, because I can’t bear the thought of someone more knowledgeable on a subject than me reading my work and thinking, “Pfft, that’s not how it is.” In this case, I had to look into a great many things – chart hits of the year 2000, post-WWII Polish history, what kind of radio a car in 1964 Australia would have, and so on. I read books on the Narungga people and Australian cave systems. I used to be a lazy researcher, but the advent of the internet means there is no excuse for that. Don’t be a Donny Didn’t-Look – Google that shit or check out a book, and make sure you’re getting it right.

What’s next on the writing horizon for you?

I’m trying to decide which of the short stories clamouring for my attention need to be written next and I’m plotting out two future novels, both of which are proving more complicated than I’d expected! I’m always looking for new opportunities to get my work out there in front of people, new ways to raise my profile.

Thanks for a fascinating interview, Matthew!

More about Midnight in the Chapel of Love …

Matthew R. Davis, winner of two 2019 Australian Shadows Awards, follows the well-received release of his first horror collection If Only Tonight We Could Sleep with the publication of his first novel, Midnight in the Chapel of Love, by JournalStone on January 29, 2021. The book is available for preorders through the publisher’s website with more options available soon. You can find Matthew at his own website here.