11 Questions: Thom Carnell

by Brent Cole

Over the years, I’ve come to love how many people in the Whatcom County do fantastic and creative in the fringes of society – without any real fan fair locally, but are recognized nationally or internationally for their contribution to art. Thom Carnell is a perfect example – many of you haven’t necessarily heard of his name or know him by face, but Thom has been an active contributor to the horror genre for over two decades – between podcasts, books, magazines and everything in between. Oddly enough, he’s also one of the nicest and coolest guys you’ll meet!

Ladies and gentleman, I present, Thom Carnell, horror badass.


Who are you and where did you come from? Please tell us about yourself.

Well, my name is Thom Carnell. I was born in Santa Maria, CA, raised in Silicon Valley. I’m a fiction writer (of a novel called No Flesh Shall Be Spared as well as several short stories in magazines like Swank and collections), a journalist (I’ve written for Fangoria Magazine, Dread Central & Twitch film web site), and lecturer (I give talks called Ask the Embalmer where I answer questions about death and dying). I was Creative Director and Head Writer for Carpe Noctem Magazine. I run a podcast of four seasoned genre journalists called The Bonus Material (available on Stitcher and iTunes). I’m also a registered sleep tech and martial artist.


Unlike many Bellingham residents, you didn’t move up for college. What initially brought you to Bellingham and what has kept you here?

After I graduated Mortuary College, we came to the Pacific Northwest so that I could work at a funeral home in Edmonds. I did that for a year, and then returned to the Bay Area. A few years later and a few moves later, I was working at a Clinical Research Center at UCSD in San Diego and a Bellingham-based sleep lab approached me about coming to work for them. They moved us all up here and we’ve been here ever since.

As for what keeps us here… We instantly liked the Bellingham sense of community, the great farm fresh food… We’ve been very lucky to meet some great people here to hang out with (which is hard for us as we work so much). There’s a great artistic vibe in this town and it’s inspiring. Oh, and we love the rain!


You recently released Carpe Noctem Magazine 20th Anniversary Edition. What was it like reexamining your work from 20 years ago? 

CN20… Yeah, we did a Kickstarter for that which got funded. Initially, I was reluctant to do it, but Cat (my wife and business partner) thought it was a good idea. The next thing I know, I’m hip deep into doing another issue of a magazine I thought died over a decade ago. But the feeling of nostalgia was palpable as we got to work: the conceptualizing of an issue, the planning of it, discovering the happy accidents, adapting to the disappointments (artists becoming unavailable or a challenge to manage). But then, you see that first “mockup” and, yeah… It was like coming home.

As for reexamining our work… I did a bit of that at first, but it got depressing pretty quick. Go look at anything you did twenty years ago and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. It was all like reading a New York Times review of your first sexual encounter. [laughs] After I trimmed off some of that ‘purple prose’ is guess I used to be so fond of, I was actually quite surprised to find a lot of it still interesting.


You also released the book No Flesh Shall be Spared, can you tell us about the writing process for it? What about the horror genre are you so drawn too?

No Flesh Shall Be Spared started as a tiny 2,000 word short story… but it wound up being something like 160,000 words. At the time I started it, I was writing for Fangoria and Dread Central. One night I had a story idea and I knew it was a rich narrative vein, but it was most definitely horror. See, I knew, as a result of working for the people I did, that a solid demographic for genre was Male 18-24, so I looked at what was popular among those folk and I came up with three things: girls, zombies, and the UFC. I’d written erotica before (for Swank Magazine) and didn’t want to repeat that as it’s a bit like writing stereo instructions (lots of “Tab A into Slot B” stuff). Now, zombies and fighting… I knew about those things. I mean, I’d trained martial arts for years and I currently train Lameco Eskrima with Langley J. West here in Bellingham. Further, I read a lot of that kind of stuff growing up.

As for the zombies… what writer has spent more time with the dead than me? So, the ‘pitch’ on No Flesh Shall Be Spared is basically “Gladiator meets Dawn of the Dead.” So, the story is essentially The UFC… with zombies. I have two more novels in the series planned – some of the ‘test drives’ are in my upcoming short story collection – but there’s been such a glut of bad films and books in that sub-genre that I’ve shelved the idea of sequels  for now. I’ll wait until the zeitgeist comes back around and people are ready for, dare I say, more mature zombie stories.

As for horror… I’ve been a fan since I was a kid. My mom was a huge film fan, but I blame a lot of my love for the genre on a guy named Bob Wilkins (Wiki him!) who hosted a weekend TV show called Creature Features where I grew up. He showed me you could be “normal” and still be a fan of this stuff.  So, that, along with my being a rabid reader and a lifelong film fan, sort of completes the picture.

If there is a parallel universe, what is that Thom Carnell doing?

Honestly, the same thing probably. This is really all I’m good at. Back when I was a kid, I used to think it would be awesome to be able to be paid to be who you are. Essentially, I do that. So yeah… no complaints here.


What are your thoughts on modern horror films? 

Oh, man… [laughs] how much time do you have? The short answer is that the majority of US / Western-based genre product is all aimed squarely at the hearts of 13-year-old girls. Why? Because that is, like it or not, who actually goes to theaters. At least they do for genre… So, when the studios do their “exit polling,” they get feedback from that same sampling of young girls. So, of course, we get watered-down – dare I say, bloodless – genre product. No one in American genre cinema is doing anything resembling mature horror or anything with real subtlety.


How does the horror genre show respect for death?

Well, it depends. For most Creatives (those who create anything resembling Art), death is merely a trope or a plot device that is available for use in order to move whatever their  plot is forward. For others… say, those who make what is referred to as ‘torture porn,” Death (and the act of dying) is a thing to be fetishized over and considered in great depth. Understandable for the young people interested in Life and the myriad of ways it can end… which is a normal thing for young people to wonder about. However, the ‘torture porn’ fan who’s in his forties… that guy should be watched.  So, a lot depends on what we’re talking about. Look… horror is, for the most part, a rollercoaster ride and a safe way for an audience to address some things (trauma, death, loss, grief, strife, etc.) and do it at an arm’s length. And that’s because Death is the ultimate sentence ender, if you feel me? It shuts the whole production / discussion right down. Murder is our ultimate crime and Death has always made us uncomfortable. So, it’s easy to see the importance of its use in a narrative sense. That all said, our American view of Death and dying is pretty juvenile in that we tend to try to believe it either doesn’t exist… or it won’t apply to us.


What is the last great book you read?

I’ll give you the last three: Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, Joe R Lansdale’s Fine, Dark Line, and Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi. Those are good ‘uns. Currently, I’m reading Matthew Stokoe’s High Life and I’m slowly making my way (as I have for a year or two now) through Carl von Clausewitz’ On War.


If you could have lunch with any artist, who would that be and why?

I’m really lucky in that I’ve met and talked with most of the people I admire. I mean, I’ve interviewed a lot of famous people for over 20-plus years. Stephen King is my Moby Dick. I was scheduled to talk to him, but he had his accident and that sort of ended that. I will say that they’re right when they say, “Don’t meet your heroes.” Meeting them… seeing that they’re human. Man… it can be hard. There are a few people I wish I could have met. People like Hunter S. Thompson, Bruce Lee, a few others… Luckily, there’s YouTube. There’s a lot of great stuff on YouTube.


Does music influence your creative process at all?

Absolutely! I write to music (primarily instrumentals), play, train… you name it. From 1979 or so to 1990, I worked as a buyer for places like Wherehouse, Record Factory, and Tower Records. I also played in bands a lot of that same time. So, music is incredibly important to who I am. It’s funny, I was just talking to someone who pointed out that a lot of my story titles are either song titles or based on a snippet of lyrics. So, there you go…


What are your top five desert island albums?

Let’s see… in no particular order: Gino Vannelli’s “Yonder Tree,” Frank Zappa’s “One Size Fits All,” Ike Quebec’s “Nature Boy,” Pauline Oliveros / Stuart Dempster / Panaiotis’ “Deep Listening,” aaaaaand… The Hilliard Ensemble’s recording for ECM of Thomas Tallis’ “Lamentations of Jeremiah.” But… you ask me tomorrow and I’ll give you five different ones.


Any last thoughts?

Well, check out my web site (thomcarnell.com) for news about new releases. I am a rampant Facebook, Tumblr, & Twitter updater (an interview said it read “like a stream of consciousness”). Please subscribe to The Bonus Material Podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. My books are available via Amazon or our site (zedpresents.com). There’s an audiobook & eBook of NFSBS and a few interview books available at Crossroad Press (crossroadpress.com). Also, Carpe Noctem 20 is still available at carpenoctem20.com. Coming up… we have some very cool coloring books for adults featuring a lot of comic and fine art artists, my short story collection, and a ton more.

Published in the August 2015 issue of What’s Up! Magazine