Interview With an Author: Johnny Compton

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Johnny Compton and his debut novel, The Spite House
Author Johnny Compton and his debut novel, The Spite House. Photo: Louis Scott Scott Photography

Johnny Compton’s (he/him) short stories have appeared in Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, The No Sleep Podcast and many other markets. He is an HWA member and creator and host of the podcast Healthy Fears. The Spite House is his debut novel and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Spite House?

I’d had a general haunted house story in mind for some time, but the spark of inspiration came from an article I read about spite houses. I encourage anyone who isn’t familiar with the term to look it up. As the name suggests, a spite house is a house constructed or decorated in some manner purely to spite someone or something, be they family member, neighbor, or government entity.

After reading about a variety of spite houses I did some basic research to see if a haunted house story had ever been set in one, and was pleasantly surprised to find spite houses entirely unoccupied even by ghostlore, much less published fiction. The story idea I had easily meshed with spite houses as a concept, and the novel developed from there.

Are Eric, Dess, Stacy, Eunice, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

One of the important side characters, Emily "Millie" Steen is inspired, at a very high level, by famed Texas journalist Molly Ivins. Aside from her, no one else was based on anyone in particular, although certain events in the novel and even the name of the town (Degener) are drawn from Texas history.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Probably the biggest changes that came about centered on Eric’s great-grandfather (Frederick) and the antagonist, Eunice. Eunice in particular started off as a bit more sympathetic, at least in my eyes, but even my earliest beta readers prior to submission to agents found her even more villainous than I initially believed her to be. After finally recognizing that (after continued encouragement from readers), I leaned harder into her villainy and she became an even more interesting and fun character to write. One of my favorite moments in the book—the passage I use for most of the public readings I’ve been fortunate enough to do—comes from one of her chapters.

Nothing was left out of the book that I wish had made it. There are background stories, particularly with Frederick, that I kept in notes but never really planned to place in the novel, but might explore down the road.

Do you have a favorite ghost or haunted house story (novel or short story), television show or movie? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)?

Oh, I have too many favorites to narrow it down. Tananarive Due’s The Good House, Michael McDowell’s The Elementals, and of course Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House immediately come to mind. Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings also had an influence on the novel, as did the film Poltergeist.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had an encounter with something paranormal?

I’m a "soft skeptic," so to speak. Probably a copout, but I have seen a person who wasn’t there before, when I was a teenager still living in my parent’s house. I even started to speak to them before they disappeared, and since I talk with my hands, I can still see myself gesturing toward them (I thought they were my mother) and then kind of freezing in place the instant they vanished.

That said, I tend to think my mind sort of malfunctioned more than I believe I actually saw a ghost.

Having said that, I’ve met and spoken with people who’ve told me stories so convincing that I’m left thinking that they either missed their calling and should be novelists (if they made the stories up), or that they, at minimum, genuinely believe in what they saw.

I might be misattributing this, but I believe it was the creator / artist / podcaster / paranormalist Sapphire Sandolo who at one point essentially made a case for believing in people even if you don’t believe in ghosts, and when it comes to other people’s stories, that’s generally the stance I try to take. Regardless of my soft skepticism, when it comes to another person’s paranormal experience, I’m not going to tell them what they did or didn’t see, hear, or feel, as I obviously wasn’t there.

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how ghosts and haunted houses continue to influence and inspire contemporary authors?

It just seems that we’re not wired to accept the severity of death, and any form of afterlife is one way for us to cope with it. I can’t imagine the concept of the dead continuing to exist in some manner and interacting with or influencing the living ever leaving us.

As for haunted houses in particular, I think they’re a great vessel for delivering menace and/or mystery to an almost universally relatable setting that is supposed to be a safe environment. It also allows you to (or even demands you to) explore and write about history and family.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Encyclopedia of Scary Things from Sandy Creek Publishing
My Authentic Self by Leroy Campbell
Gone Forever by Scott Blade
And a lamp, a bottle of water, and the remote to the fan I turn on for background noise while I sleep.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Tananarive Due
Walter Mosley
Elmore Leonard
Stephen King
Toni Morrison

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

Speak up! Don’t be afraid to say something or ask a question if you’re feeling a little uncertain or curious about anything taking place during the publishing process. Everyone you’re working with is busy, and possibly working on more than just your book, so be mindful of this, patient and professional as well, but initiate communication or nudge someone with a reminder if you feel the need. Again, be professional, be courteous, and of course be reasonable as well, but don’t sit on a question or concern for weeks or anything, just to regret never bringing it up when it’s too late, or close to too late.

I was fortunate enough not to encounter any significant issues, but I think it helped that I learned early on to not just ask questions, but to also agree upon a general schedule of communication between everyone I was working with. For example, if someone said I should expect to hear from them in two weeks, I’d reply to affirm this, and let them know that if I didn’t hear back in two weeks plus a courtesy buffer day or two, I’d contact them.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I can’t pick just one!

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, if I absolutely had to narrow it down, although even with just that title I’d be cheating, because to me you can lump the entire trilogy together, but especially volumes 1 and 2. But I feel I must mention Ghostly Warnings by Daniel Cohen, The Scariest Stories You’ve Ever Heard by Mark Mills, and the anthology Shudders edited by Ross R. Olney.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Hans Holzer’s Haunted America, which I actually hid from my grandmother after purchasing. I knew she wouldn’t approve specifically because she knew me well, and knew it would just be the latest book to trouble my sleep. Sure enough, she was suspicious of me when I wouldn’t tell her the title of the book. When she and some other family members finally made me reveal the book, she was actually somewhat relieved. Turns out she thought I’d bought something that contained “dirty pictures.”

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Outside of classwork in elementary and grade school? Not that I can think of. But I definitely faked my way through Silas Marner in school. I tend to be pretty comfortable with pleading ignorance to books I know or feel I should have gotten around to already and just haven’t for some reason or another. There’s just so much to read and so little time.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I didn’t buy it entirely for the cover, but Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw first grabbed my attention with its perfectly frightening cover image.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Probably multiple.

The aforementioned favorite books all reinforced a love of scary stories that has, at long last, carried me into a potential career as a horror storyteller.

Tanarive Due’s The Between really made me reevaluate myself as a writer and work harder to develop my voice and stop avoiding a certain amount of heart and earned affection that I once erroneously believed would be out of place in horror fiction.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn. It’s my favorite book of the young decade so far, and I recommend it whenever I get the chance.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Fisherman, by John Langan.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The last that I’ve experienced is the Kiyoshi Kurosawa film Cure, a film I should have seen years ago, but never got around to. It’s also the last piece of art to truly impact me.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I’d be somewhere on the coast, facing east so that I can wake up early enough to catch the sunrise over the water, then grab a true, New-Orleans-quality beignet, a little coffee, and probably too much orange juice for breakfast. Later, spend the day at the beach with some loved ones, alternating between relaxing on the shore, getting in the water, and reading the book I brought with me. Leave before sundown to grab dinner. I’ll probably be in the mood for seafood, after being on the beach all day. Maybe “surf and turf.” Go catch a movie after dinner. Head home and have a little nightcap before bed.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

What would you do if you were a supervillain?

Answer, I’d be one of these misguided villains who thinks he’s a hero but who takes things too far. And, in a borderline Silver Age of comic books fashion, I would obsess over something that might strike others as overly important to me.

Specifically, I would invent a machine that would rob a person of the ability to experience arts and creativity, and I would target anyone online who is being needlessly rude about a movie, song, book, etc. For instance, if they’re the type to say, “If you don’t love this book, you must be an idiot,” I’d hit them with the Creativity Blocker Ray, or whatever it’s called (still workshopping) and make it impossible for them to read a book, or even listen to an audiobook, or even learn braille to read it, etc.

What are you working on now?

The second book (unrelated to The Spite House, apologies to any sequel fans), and, always, a number of short story ideas.

Book cover for The Spite House
The Spite House
Compton, Johnny