I'm fascinated by aspects of life that are just beneath the surface, things that are beyond the edge of what we can see or feel physically.
J Thorn is a Top 100 Most Popular Author in Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy, with his bestselling books selling over 100,000 copies.
- An overview of J's writing including the Portal Arcane series. His books have an edge of horror, thriller and some science fiction.
- J's About page says, “I believe reading dark fiction can be healing,” and so we talk about what lies behind this. About J's background and how he didn't fit in where he lived. He used to walk in the woods there, even in the middle of the night, and these experiences shaped his writing. I talk about the difficulty of ‘stepping out of the box' that society puts us in.
- Dealing with fear of judgement. We discuss our respective journeys to writing what we really love.
- Our mutual interest in occult and mysticism. How J's research of the Salem witch trials led him into learning about this side of things, and how it appears in his books.
- The books and films that have influenced J's writing. How he likes stories when you never see the monster. How we both love Stephen King.
- On sleeping well and psychological wellness 🙂
- On redemption – one of J's main themes – and how that can happen after death, if not in this lifetime. On faith and how our past influences our writing.
Transcription of the interview with J Thorn
JF: Hi, everyone, I am thriller author, JF Penn and today I'm here with J Thorn. Hi, J!
J: Hello JF.
JF: Just a little introduction, J is a top 100 most popular author in horror, science fiction and fantasy, with his best selling books selling over 100,000 copies and he has lots and lots of books which we are gonna to talk about today.
So J, give us an overview of your work to date.
J: Sure. I write mostly what would be considered horror and dark fantasy, although I don't typically stick to conventions, so there's a lot of crossover into what people might recognize as thriller or suspense or even mystery to a certain degree. I have two trilogies that are out, The Hidden Evil and The Portal Arcane trilogy, I have a few stand-alone's and I have a handful of short story anthologies and some other short stories that I've published along the way.
JF: And that Portal series, because I've started on that, that's definitely got an edge of science fiction, hasn't it. Tell us a bit more about that.
J: Sure, I'm really interested in the aspects of life that are just beneath the surface, things that, maybe we sense or we feel but we can't necessarily explain. They could be scientific or they could be philosophical or they could be religious but I'm really fascinated with those components of our existence and so The Portal Arcane series kind of has that sort of feel to it, it's definitely a fantastic world in that it's not set in a contemporary place but there are elements of it, there are flashbacks to it and it's character driven. So the main character, Samuel, has a quest and he doesn't exactly know why he's on the quest or that's what he's trying to figure out as he goes along.
JF: It's so interesting. Now, your “About” page says, “I believe that reading dark fiction can be healing” and you talk about some of your hard times and I wonder if you can talk about what role that's had in your writing?
J: Sure, I think that for as long as I can remember, I've always felt like an outsider, in my own family, in my community, in that I didn't necessarily relate to a lot of things that other people thought were important or interesting and because of that I found myself alone a lot, and I'm also an introvert so I actively sought that out as well. And I grew up in a suburban area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and there were a lot of woods and I could walk over through the backyard and down over the hill and it was like being in another world.
And I spent days and days and hours down there by myself, just wandering around and sitting and it was almost like a cocoon in a way, it was almost sort of protecting me from judgments of other people and from other things. I think that's sort of where that idea of dark fiction being sort of healing, something I'll share with you, I haven't really told the story publicly yet, I'm a little embarrassed to tell it but I'm gonna share it with you.
Before I was old enough to drive as a teenager, probably in those very awkward like 13, 14, 15 year old years, I used to sneak out of my parents house between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning and I used to walk through the neighborhood and into the woods around, just because it was so comforting, it was just quiet and it was peaceful and I think that's sort of where the genesis of that, the dark fiction as being healing came from. I would actively seek that out and I felt so much better when I came back in, yeah, and I had I told my parents that, they would think I was insane.
JF: Oh look, you know, I find walking around graveyards at night very peaceful, so again, people think we're weird, it's fine.
JF: But those people who get it, you know, I get that story. I personally don't think that's particularly weird, so you know, I think it's about finding your people, isn't it? But what interests me about you is that I feel you have been more brave than I have because I'm nearly 40 and it's taken me this long to step out of a box. From what I've read about you, you stepped out the box a lot younger.
J: I wouldn't say a lot younger, I'm 43 and I put my first book on Amazon in 2010 or 2011 and prior to that I started a hard rock, sort of a heavy metal band with a good friend of mine, the band was called Threefold Law, they're still existing but I've since left. We formed that in 2006 and that was, so I guess. at that time, you know, I was in my mid 30s and that was the first time I was really started to step outside of myself, as you say, and sort of force myself beyond the comfort zone. And I don't know why it took me so long either, I think it would've been a lot easier if that happened when I was 22.
JF: Yeah, we would both be like Stephen King.
J: I know.
JF: But hey, you know, we're still young, we've got years. But you also talk about that fear of judgment of which I feel that quite a lot, when you write stuff that people maybe won't accept and you worry about people judging you.
So how have you dealt with that in your way, do you worry about it or you just get on with it?
J: I would be a liar if I said I didn't worry about it, I do, but I think I have it compartmentalized a little better than I did early on. When I first started publishing on Amazon and I was putting up drafts that should never have been up there. I fully admit, they were premature and the reviews came in and I was reading them and they were scathing and brutal and deserved, like I deserved them, but at that time it was like earth shattering and I hit a moment early on where I thought, “I don't know if I can do this.”
Because you're right, you become so vulnerable, you create this piece of art and you put it out into the world and then you have no control over how it's received. And I talk to a lot of authors who are concerned about reviews, we're all concerned about reviews but the bottom line is, you can't do anything about it. You're vulnerable and you put it out there and that's about all you can do. So yeah, it still bothers me, I still feel judgment, I want my stuff to be liked, I think we all do, but I also also don't let it get to me the way it used to.
JF: That's great. Now, a lot of your books have stuff about occult and mysticism in and I think you have a degree in that too?
J: I was a history major and my concentration was US revolutionary war era history, and part of that was the Salem witch history, and so I've done a lot of research in writing and study on that particular time period. And I think that's the beginnings, the seeds of the occults and mysticism in the United States from a historical perspective. And that whole phenomena, I mean in the whole scope of history we're only talking about, a few hundred people and yet that is just written about over and over and over again and it seems to hold a fascination for not only historians but Americans in general. I don't know if it has the same grip on people in the UK but I know here that the Salem witch history is really embedded in sort of that early American frontier ideology. So I think that's where a lot of my interests came from is that time period.
JF: I was just looking at you going, “You've got a bit of Daniel Day Lewis look,” haven't you?
J: I would take that, yeah.
JF: I think in England we certainly have, maybe it's not as big as the US because we have a lot of other history around the occult, but certainly we are very aware of Salem.
So how does some of the other parts of your study on occult and mysticism come through in certain books, give us some examples?
J: Sure, You know, The Hidden Evil series is really based on a mythological creature from some Eastern traditions called a Preta or a Gaki and the idea is that this is a spirit or a wanderer that's unsatiated and it's a restless spirit. And it comes out at night and it, I don't mean to gross out your readers but it tends to eat feces and blood and it's vile, and there are festivals to try and keep these things away in Japan and China and India.
And so I used that general concept to build The Hidden Evil series and it's about these creatures that are almost sort of like a demonic possession, and in the trilogy box set that I put together, I have some exclusive short stories called Before The Realm and they are packaged into this box but they're four short stories set in Colonial America right around the Salem witch time, so I've sort of blended that Eastern creature with some of more American contemporary history in a fictional way.
JF: That's brilliant, and then what about your influences? We briefly mentioned Steven King, but who do you read for pleasure and what do you like to watch?
J: That's a tough question because we'd probably need about four or five hours to go over that but yeah, clearly Stephen King is my favorite writer of all time. I love some of the early 20th century proto-horror writers like Edgar Allan Poe and H P Lovecraft, of course, Ray Bradbury those are all really big influences. But for me, I found Stephen King at a time in my life when I was in that really sort of developmental impressionable stage and you know it's stuck with me ever since, and he's a fantastic storyteller and it's amazing how many years later now, he has legitimacy.
Back in the 80s, literary folks didn't like Stephen King, they thought he was trashy and awful and it wasn't real writing, so it's fun to see now he has become much more important, I think, in literary circles and so he's a big influence on me. I tend to really enjoy dark fiction or dark movies where the monster isn't always readily apparent. So I've written on my blog before that one of my favorite movies is The Blair Witch Project, and that's a polarizing movie, some people thought that this is really something stupid and other people were horrified by it, and I loved the way Sanchez never really shows you the monster and the monster is up here and that's the kind of stuff I love.
So that would be an example. I think The Shining is another good example, you know, the house is the monster and you see scenes that are not necessarily happening, you know the bloody elevator and all of that, but really that evil underneath, you're never really sure what that is or what's causing it and so on, those are types of film and books and TV that I'm attracted to.
JF: Now, a question I get a lot, which I think is hilarious is do you sleep well?
J: Most of the times I sleep like a baby.
JF: Me too!
J: Yeah, I don't have any issues falling asleep, and I think that, you know, there's this perception that if you write dark stuff that you live in a basement with chains and torture devices and you sacrifice goats every night in the backyard. I'm just a regular guy, you know. I don't have any problems sleeping.
JF: No, I just find that one so funny, I'm like, “Yeah, of course we empty our minds of everything that could be disturbing.” But no, it is funny.
And then apart from that supernatural side, what are the themes that come up in your writing over and over again?
J: I would say the dominant theme that I look at is the idea of redemption. We all have these things in our life that we do, I wouldn't call them regrets, I'm don't necessarily live with regret, but I think there are things that we do that maybe we're not proud of or that we were immature or inexperienced and we made decisions that would've been different.
And I like to think that there are times in everyone's life where you get a second chance and so I found myself over and over again as I pushed these characters through these awful, awful things, as we like to do, that there's some point to it. It's not just meaningless gore, it's not just to see how cruel we can be to these characters, but there's a payoff, and they may not see it right away, but the reader can probably sense it coming. So I would say it's that idea of just getting another chance.
JF: That's interesting, and do you think the redemption or the second chance can happen after death?
J: Oh, yeah, you know, it's part of my bio, I was raised in a pretty strict Catholic house and I don't practice anymore and I'm open about that but I'm not hostile. I don't have any sort of burning vendetta against any church organized religion.
However, I find that it's a bit limiting because when I was growing up, you were taught that your faith was the right one, right? Everyone else had it wrong but the one that you were practicing, that one's got it right. And I think as I grew up and as I started to get out into the world, what I realized is there's so much that we just don't know anything about and some people call that science, like gravity is a perfect example. Gravity exists but it's pretty mysterious, right? So there's that, and some people will use, you know, philosophy, some people will use religion to sort of explain these things. Some people call it heaven, some people call it reincarnation, I guess I like to keep a pretty open mind about it and recognize that there're things that occur, they're worlds that where maybe we get a sense of but we really just don't know. And so I don't want to box myself in, I guess.
JF: And do you explore your beliefs in your characters?
J: I think as we write dark fiction, we tend to explore these things that we fear or things that we need to work out, and so I do find myself sort of wrestling with some of these concepts and the characters themselves are sort of wrestling with it. And there's always a figure, a character in the story that has some of the answers but they are mysterious and they don't give them all up so as the characters work through, I think that's sort of me processing as well.
JF: Now, you've got a book out as we speak, The Black Fang Betrayal. Tell us about that, this sounds nutty.
J: It's a collaborative novel, a single story, but it was written by 10 authors, and we never spoke to each other, we never discussed it, we never met. Some of the authors are in the UK, some are in the United States, some are in India. It was sort of a crazy idea. It came out of a lot of the multi author box sets that I was doing about a year ago. I thought wow, wouldn't it be cool if we did a collaboration that was more than an anthology, it was a single story so from the reader perspective, they're gonna get a full-on novel, but there gonna get the benefit of 10 different voices. So that's where the idea came from, and it took about 10 to 12 months to get everything done, from having the idea to until today when the book published officially, and it's been quite a ride.
JF: Just give us an idea of the story.
J: Okay, well, the story is about an aging warlock who lives in a rural part of Ohio in the United States, and he has an apprentice, and the apprentice is power hungry, he wants the coven for himself, and the warlock knows this because he has been around for a long time. And the coven is spread out all over the world and there's sort of, we're calling it the, it's like The Sopranos but with warlocks, so there's these rival covens and they all trying to gain international power, there's that whole sort of underbelly that exists there. And so Levi, the lead warlock, he knows what his apprentice is up to and he kind of let's him, he kind of baits him in. He let's him bring the other warlocks and Levi has a plan, and I don't want to spoil it but he has a plan, he sets out his nine other warlocks on a quest and the ones that survive come back to him and then he kind of takes care of business.
JF: Ah, sounds good, that's fascinating, to get that many people working on the same thing, that's brilliant. Great, so where can people find you and your books online?
J: Easiest thing to do is to go to JThorn.net and that will take you to our books page. And I have all of my books available on, well not all of them, I have a lot of books available on multiple platforms, so that's the single place, if you go there you'll find everything.
JF: Brilliant thanks so much for your time J.
J: Thanks JF.