Michael Hodges has been unleashing monsters on horror readers ever since his debut novel, The Puller, was published in 2015. In the science fiction thriller, an invisible beast torments a man in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Since then, he’s written about creepy alien creatures that try to take over a Montana ecosystem (The Invasive) and the horrors of materialism when a shopping mall gets cut off from the known universe (Black Friday). As an award-winning nature photographer and avid outdoorsman, he’s well acquainted with real-life predators, big and small. Recently, I got a chance to chat with Hodges about monster-making and his photography.
Geeks of Doom: How do you go about creating a monster? What’s your process?
Michael Hodges: It’s all about coming up with a situation where people can’t escape, and organic creatures. I can’t finish a novel where the protagonists can just walk away from the threat (or a film). If there’s a guy with a knife walking around, all you really have to do is just keep walking in a specific direction. Just…leave. So I evaluate what’s been done, what doesn’t work. This allows me to create a concept like my debut novel The Puller, where a young man is trapped within a ten-acre radius on a remote cabin property. Matt Kearns (the protagonist) can’t just walk away. He’s literally trapped by an invisible creature. Every time he hits the ten-acre radius, he’s brutally pulled back onto the property. He only has so many “pull backs” before he dies. In the meantime he has to learn the creature’s weaknesses as he fends off madness and starvation. The “trapped theme” has meaning in the novel, as Matt’s father used to free animals from traps near the same property. His predicament is very much like that of an animal trapped by steel jaws and a chain.
The creatures themselves have to have an organic attachment to the environment for it to work. I leave some of that up to the reader’s imagination in The Puller. The creature itself could come from roadless, untracked forest. I set this up with what I hope is “landscape as character” in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In my second novel,Â The Invasive, my goal was to create a realistic alien invasion, and thus realistic creatures. In so many books and films, we get the apex predators flying around in spaceships or hunting down humans. Super predators are cool, but focusing entirely on them lacks a cohesive scientific viewpoint. In The Invasive, it’s a full-blown ecosystem invasion, meaning the apex predators, the plants, and even benign or friendly alien animals attempt to take over a valley in Montana. So not only are alien predators eating people, but they’re eating other alien species they’d eat on their home planet, too. A real ecosystem. I did extensive research on what the most realistic alien invasion would be like, and that happened to be a master alien life form sending thousands of cloning labs across the galaxy, which would embed on various planets, and then begin the process of replicating their native ecosystem onto these planets when the climate was advantageous. So you have one-third of the alien animals in The Invasive running around with these blinking red tags that increase in beats-per-minute as they habituate to the new planet. When the tags reach 200 beats-per-minute, the original clone ship sends a signal to the master race that this planet is worth investing the time and cost. Obviously, the protagonists who survive the initial Apex Valley invasion must stop the new animals before the tags hit 200 BPM.
Geeks of Doom:Â What comes first: the story or the monster? Do you tailor the story to the monster or the monster to the story?
Michael Hodges: It all depends on the character. I come up with a character who’s screwed, then let them work their way out. The monster can be changed depending on the environment and how the character reacts.
Geeks of Doom: What makes a fictional monster scary?
Michael Hodges: Ambiguity.
Geeks of Doom: What are some of your favorite literary monsters?
Michael Hodges: The creepiest monster has to be whatever the hell that thing was in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House.” There’s a palpable, slow motion terror in its movements (almost relaxed and inevitable) which still creeps me out to this day just thinking about it. Each time the protagonist opens his eyes on consecutive nights, the witch is closer to his bed. Each time. Yikes.
Geeks of Doom: You’re a nature lover, but often your books make nature seem frightening. How do you balance those two things?
Michael Hodges: Great question. Nature is both a giver and a taker, so there’s always this paradox. Nature gave us life, but it also gives us disease and death.
I think the takeaway from this paradox is nature should be praised, because even though there can be tremendous negative consequences, we would never experience life at all without nature. So ultimately, nature is a good thing and must be respected. It deserves much, much more respect and admiration than a religion. Or a government.
In my debut novel,Â The Puller, I leave it up to the reader to interpret what exactly the Puller is. There are many hints in the novel as to what I think it is, but what I think doesn’t matter so much as the reader’s imagination.
I don’t really enjoy books that don’t have nature in them…or that don’t create landscape as character. I love landscape as character. Cormac McCarthy is amazing at it. Stephen King was brilliant at it in The Shining, in how he made the Overlook Hotel a living, breathing character. Our world is more than our paths from work to shopping to work. There are entire ecosystems out there begging to be explored.
Geeks of Doom:Â As a nature photographer, you must have come up against some real-life monsters. Was there ever a time when you feared for your life?
Michael Hodges: Yes. A couple years back I got too close to a grizzly, and was bluff charged. This caused me to fall off a short cliff and smash my camera gear into the rocks. The camera was dead, my metal 1.4x teleconverter was sheared in half, and the wind expunged from my lungs. But the bear left me alone. As they normally do.
Geeks of Doom: How does your photography work inform your story writing?
Michael Hodges: It informs much of my writing, especially “landscape as character.” I have not been in the field as much as I’d like to lately. My scripts and novels now take up most of my free time. But I will get back out there on the regular as soon as I can. There’s a centering and cleansing effect to just standing in nature and not looking at your phone.
Geeks of Doom: What is the scariest creature you’ve ever encountered out in the wild?
Michael Hodges: 18-to-70-year-old day-drinking males with guns.
Geeks of Doom: Aren’t humans the real monsters?
Michael Hodges: Yes. We are walking contradictions of danger and nurture.
Geeks of Doom: What are you working on now? What can we expect from you in the future?
Michael Hodges: I’m working on a screenplay forÂ The Invasive, which I’m having a lot of fun with. I have a fresh horror novel out on submission with my agent. It’s really a fun concept, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s received. I’m also contemplating turning my short science fiction/thriller story “Lost Planes, Lost River” into a novel.
I’ve been in contact with several producers on a variety of projects, so I always have something brewing. These days I tend to be just as focused on the process as the art. I haven’t decided if that’s good or bad yet, ha ha.
As always, I’m eager for a great concept/situation. I find these happen organically, such as the one for the current horror novel on submission. I was driving past an abandoned and toxic smelter stack in Anaconda, Montana, last spring, and the ominous quality of the towering stack triggered the concept.