Friday, September 30, 2016

Are We Monsters? A chat with horror author Brian Kirk

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Brian Kirk’s debut horror novel, We Are Monsters, deservedly Stoker award nominated for superior achievement in a first novel. It’s a complex, fascinating work and I wanted to pick Brian’s brain…um, since that’s what he seems to excel at.

SRW: Welcome Brian! Tell the readers a little bit about We Are Monsters.

BK: Hey, Stuart! Thanks for taking the time to chat.
Certainly. We Are Monsters is a story about a brilliant, yet troubled psychiatrist named Alex Drexler who is working to create a cure for schizophrenia. At first, the drug he creates shows great promise in alleviating his patient’s symptoms. It appears to return schizophrenics to their former selves. But (as you may imagine) something goes wrong. Unforeseen side effects begin to emerge, forcing prior traumas to the surface, setting inner demons free. His medicine may help heal the schizophrenic mind, but it also expands it, and the monsters it releases could be more dangerous than the disease.

SRW: This is a very psychologically rich book, Brian. All of your characters are given back-stories, ultimately defining their current flaws, fears and guilt. The past makes us who we are. Very human traits. Do you have a background in psychology?

BK: I don’t have a formal background in psychology, though the field has always fascinated me. Like many creative people, I have been plagued with bouts of mental illness my whole life, which draws me to the subject. I’m fairly introspective and often psychoanalyze myself. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know, but over time I’ve become versed in the various methods of cognitive behavioral therapy for both self-application and out of general curiosity.

SRW: You’re not very nice to your three leads! (I like that. Heh.) Closet sadist or hyping up the drama and suspense?

BK: Probably the latter. What’s the point in writing about boring people without problems, right? As I’ve grown older, I’ve become fascinated with how events that occurred early in one’s life impact that person later on, either due to trauma rising to the surface, or through a sequence of events or decisions that lead someone on a certain path towards an undesirable destination they couldn’t foresee.
One of these two eventualities come true for most of the central characters in We Are Monsters. Their individual pasts have caught up with their current predicaments in ways that must be dealt with.

SRW: The three protagonists are all saddled with guilt, generated by events out of their control (for the most part; I’m looking at you, Alex, as the exception!). Did you write them to be pitied? Despised? Empathetic? I think you pulled all three emotions off at various times. But that guilt, Brian! One of the themes of the book appears to be that instilled guilt formulates who we as people are. Catholic much?

BK:  Very insightful, Stuart. Perhaps you are the closet psychologist!

I didn’t conceive the characters with the intention of eliciting a certain emotion, exactly. I was more concerned with giving them real issues to work through in a way that felt authentic to me. But, guilt? Yes. Hell, yes. I’ve lived with guilt stemming from a stringent religious upbringing most of my life. Many years spent worrying my soul was destined for eternal hell due to slight infractions to arbitrary rules that harmed no one. I think we all strive to become our actualized selves, either based on religious ideology or a basic moral code, and become disappointed when we fall short. That seems to be a fairly universal experience that I tried to express through the characters in the book. 

SRW: There’re quite a few themes in the book, some of them heavy. Now I don’t wanna’ make We Are Monsters sound like a dull college text-book, but generally in horror fiction, the reader doesn’t encounter such metaphysical themes as the nature of reality. Sort of literature gussied up with horror. Do you believe we are capable of forming our own reality? 

BK: I’m not sure what I believe. I’m equally compelled by arguments for free will as I am pre-determination. Personal experience leads me to believe we are capable of forming our own reality, but I don’t know if there’s “woo-woo” metaphysics involved or if it’s just a matter of applying basic momentum in a specific direction.  

Ten years ago, I was as far from being a published author as possible. But it’s something I knew I wanted to become. So I set my intention towards making it happen, applying my time and attention in that direction, taking all the necessary steps to accomplish that goal. Eventually I was able to turn that dream into my reality. Was there woo-woo involved as suggested by The Law of Attraction, and such philosophies, or was it simply a natural outcome based on the steps and actions I was taking? Don’t know. 

SRW:  There are some great quotes about insanity: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Often attributed to Einstein). I like this definition. But if we study it, Brian, aren’t your three protagonists guilty of insanity by this definition? Each day they use the same methods at work (particularly Eli), hoping to cure insanity and generally failing. If we really wanna’ get depressing, perhaps we’re all insane, performing the same work, day in or day out. 

BK: There is a broad spectrum of mental states. Our society tends to favor the analytical state of consciousness most grounded in the physical reality of things we can touch, measure, and weigh. That’s the state of consciousness rewarded in schools that rely on the memorization of information evaluated by multiple choice tests. People on other mental spectrums that lean more towards imaginary realms are often less valued by our society, and are even, depending on the degree of separation from our material reality and the actions that result from this, feared, ostracized, incarcerated and/or institutionalized.  
One thing that I find curious and frightening is to consider how our societal reward systems tend to favor people with psychopathic tendencies. Want to know the ten jobs with the highest rates of psychopathy?
1. CEO
2. Lawyer
3. Media (Television/Radio)
4. Salesperson
5. Surgeon
6. Journalist
7. Police officer
8. Clergy person
9. Chef
10. Civil servant
Yep, scary stuff.

SRW: Edgar Allen Poe wrote “I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity.” Talk about depressing. If we accept this as the new world order, I don’t wanna be sane. How do you feel about this quote?

BK:  Ha! I like that! 

I think it’s all a matter of perspective. Bankers are crazy to circus performers, and visa versa. I wish our society was more open to altered states of consciousness, or valued states of consciousness that did more than earn money and drive our economy forward. One of the most common questions people ask when they learn I aspire to write professionally is, “How much does it pay?” 

I think the key is to be authentic to yourself. Don’t conform to the pressure of societal norms if they don’t make sense to you. It’s tricky, though. Because no one likes to starve.

SRW: The catalyst for the horrific events in the book is the drug, Dimethyltryptamine (that’s a handful to type!). As I read the book, I had assumed it a fictional drug. But, no, my pharmaceutical professor of a wife told me it’s a real deal. Well done! Did you do a lot of research before settling on the right drug to fit the tale? (I bet that was fun reading!) And do you believe in the power of Dimethl…Dimathap…that drug?

BK:  I first learned about Dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT, from a book called “DMT: The Spirit Molecule,” written by Rick Strassman, a scientist who conducted government funded clinical tests on the effects of DMT. I was fascinated by the results from that study. Otherwise sober, responsible volunteers who participated in this study were convinced they had entered alternate dimensions and communicated with alien intelligences during their experiences with DMT. These experiences were not only almost universally life altering for those who experienced them, there were similarities in experiences among disparate people who had never met. Almost like people from separate states sharing a common dream.
While the author does not make any definitive conclusions, he was compelled by this theory that the molecule opens a doorway in our minds that allows our consciousness to travel through to other dimensions. This is a theory long held by shamanic traditions, especially those who use the psychedelic brew, Ayahuasca, of which the chief psychedelic compound is DMT.

SRW: Finally—and I suppose we should have started here—the title. Clearly, the title references not only the mental patients, but the three protagonists, and humanity as a whole. Good, appropriate title. Did you have the title in mind before you began?

BK: No, the original title for the book was, “In Search of Asylum.” My editor at the time, Don D’Auria, felt like the title sounded too much like non-fiction, which I agreed with. He suggested, “Asylum,” which I felt was too generic, so I brainstormed alternates and came up with “We Are Monsters,” which felt right. I’m happy where we wound up. 

SRW: What’re you writing as a follow-up, Brian?

BK:  I’m currently working on a third novel, while my second is on submission with various editors. The completed novel currently making the rounds is the first in a planned trilogy of dark sci-fi thrillers with a “Strange Days” kind of vibe. The work-in-progress is a horror novel that I’m writing by the request of a publisher based on a proposal and should be done by year’s end. Hopefully one or more will hit!   

SRW: Tell everyone where they can find We Are Monsters.

BK: Anyone interested in checking out We Are Monsters can order a copy here:
And for anyone interested in striking up a virtual friendship, please connect with me through one of the following channels. Don’t worry. I only kill my characters.

SRW: Thanks for dropping by, Brian. And if you’re looking for a very interesting, well written and different horror novel, give We Are Monsters a shot.

BK: Thanks, Stuart! I appreciate the nice things you said about the novel and for taking the time to chat.

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