Darrin Doyle is an author and English professor at Central Michigan University whose fiction has appeared in Puerto del Sol, The Long Story, Cottonwood, Alaska Quarterly Review, and other publications. He has written two novels, Revenge of the Teachers Pet: A Love Story and The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, and has published three short story collections to date: The Dark Will End The Dark, Scoundrels Among Us, and, most recently, The Big Baby Crime Spree and Other Delusions.
His latest novel, The Beast in Aisle 34, released in September 2021, is now available from Tortoise Books. The book chronicles the story of Sandy Kurtz—retail worker, husband, and soon-to-be father—as he searches for passion and purpose in his life. Oh! And he just happens to metamorphosize into a monstrous, gore-hungry werewolf once every month during the full moon.
I had the chance to connect with Doyle and ask him a few questions about his love of Michigan, where all the weirdness in his stories comes from, and about what inspired him to write The Beast in Aisle 34.
The following interview was conducted via email over the course of several weeks.
Maxwell Malone: In your most recent short story collection, The Big Baby Crime Spree and Other Delusions, each tale is either set in Michigan or takes place in a state adjacent to Michigan. Similarly, Sandy Kurtz’s journey in your new novel, The Beast in Aisle 34, spans Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas and provides a more elongated and intimate look at this Midwestern setting. What about this setting—and the real-life characters that inhabit it—has drawn you to write so extensively about this specific part of the country?
Darrin Doyle: I think it comes down to authority and comfort.
While I’ve lived in places like Osaka, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Manhattan, Kansas, I was born and raised in Michigan. It’s like the expression, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” I feel like I can represent this place—its locations, certainly, but even more the zeitgeist. Places and the people who inhabit them have a particular spirit, personality, and way of seeing the world. There’s an attitude that goes beyond geography, and I’ve absorbed the Michigan attitude into myself, and I’m comfortable and feel that I’ve got an authority about what Michigan is like (although of course this is somewhat a generalization).
I’ll give you an example. One of my students at Kansas State University ended up attending Northern Michigan University in the Upper Peninsula. In an email to me, she confessed that, when she first arrived, the trees “terrified” her. The Upper Peninsula, of course, is covered with expansive, dense woods. I’ve always found trees to be comforting and cozy and beautiful. Interestingly, when I moved to Kansas, I felt anxiety from that environment—except my fear was of the wide-open spaces. The absence of trees made me feel lonely and exposed.
This is a good example of how place makes us who we are.
MM: That Midwestern “attitude that goes beyond geography” is something that I feel you consistently capture well in your writing. All the characters in The Big Baby Crime Spree and The Beast in Aisle 34 seem like natural extensions of the different places they inhabit. As a native Michigander myself, I often found myself nostalgic for the people and places of my home state while reading both books!
I think you capture those subtle senses of anxiety and alienation well too—and it seems like you enjoy using strange or weird elements to embody those sensations in your writing. Whether it be droning mechanical babies, plans to weaponize newborns before the emergence of their fingerprints, or werewolves stalking Michigan’s woodlands, the Weird runs a strong course through your short fiction and your new novel too.
What roles do you feel the strange, the otherworldly, and the uncanny play in your fiction and why do you think you tend to gravitate towards stories with a more strange or absurd element to them?
DD: Some of my first influences were Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka. I also loved Grimm’s fairy tales. I loved the strange, the fantastical, the surreal. But honestly, I don’t set out to write “weird” stories.
My first novel, Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story, was just me writing a comedy along the lines of A Confederacy of Dunces. However, a lot of people who read that first novel are taken aback by how “odd” it is. I guess it is a bit off-kilter, and the characters are quirky, but weirdness wasn’t my intention.
A few years ago, I tried to write a novel that was more restrained—a straightforward comedy about this woman who goes on a Big Brother type reality show. A friend of mine read it and said it was like “Franz Kafka wrote a rom-com.” Hahaha. I liked that description, but I was trying to write something more mainstream, not weird at all. So, I guess those elements creep into my work no matter what I do.
Now I don’t try to reign them in. When I write, I’m entertaining myself, surprising myself. Those are my main goals. I guess what entertains me is a little bizarre.
In general, though, the benefit of the uncanny, the surreal, the otherworldly is that these can serve as a type of funhouse mirror. They show a distorted version of ourselves, of society, and hopefully this distortion makes us see the world in fresh ways. It’s the Russian formalist concept of defamiliarization: that language has the power to transform familiar objects into something new.
MM: Freud referred to that same sensation as unheimlich when speaking on the “uncanny.” It more literally translates to unhomely, which I’ve always felt more accurately captures the intimacy of being familiar with something and why it is so strange to see that same thing from a different perspective. I think your analogy of a funhouse mirror is a bit more pertinent, though, given how much humor is present in your writing—especially in The Beast in Aisle 34.
At the end of the novel, you note that it was largely inspired by John Landis’ 1981 film, An American Werewolf in London—perhaps one of the most well-known horror comedy films to ever grace the silver screen. The text juxtaposes dark moments in Sandy Kurtz’s story with moments and characters that inject a lot of levity, like the Squatch Cops and their Fife Lake town hall or Jerry and Ben and their LARPing.
What is it about An American Werewolf in London’s humor that inspired you to make a horror comedy yourself, and what was it like trying to strike the right balance between serious, horrific moments and humor?
DD: That movie was so influential on me.
I saw it when I was 12 years old. It was terrifying, but it had these moments of comedy that created a great release. When I saw Candyman in the theater, during this really tense part some guy in the audience yelled out “Ahhh!” Everyone in the theater cracked up. Humor can balance against the fear, and it also keeps the reader/viewer in a constant state of attention, because few emotional responses are more visceral than fear and laughter.
Films have done this more than books—Shaun of the Dead, Evil Dead II, Re-Animator, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, and so many others—but I think there’s room in literature for this tone as well.
As for finding a balance, it’s a gut feeling for which direction each moment should turn. Whenever I go dark for a little while, I instinctively try to inject some humor (and vice-versa).
MM: Horror comedy is absolutely an often-overlooked subgenre of horror in literature, and I think it is even more difficult to pull off well, which is all the more reason why The Beast in Aisle 34 is such a fun and worthwhile read!
It’s also deserving of attention because it seems like there just aren’t that many werewolf stories around these days! Werewolves are incredibly underrepresented in today’s horror climate and rarely seem to steal the spotlight away from the likes of vampires, zombies, or evil spirits.
Why do you think this is and what inspired you to make Sandy Kurtz’s story a werewolf story beyond the influence of An American Werewolf in London?
DD: I’m not sure why werewolf stories haven’t been as common, but, honestly, I prefer it this way. I’d rather not see the oversaturation that has happened with vampires and zombies. I love horror, but I have a hard time getting into zombies now because it’s just been done to death (haha).
As for my personal inspiration, I’m attracted to the existential conflict of werewolf stories. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I see the werewolf story as a man versus man (or to be less gendered: person versus themselves) conflict. We’ve all got this aspect of ourselves that is animal, primal, and wild, and this is at odds with what we’re taught about being civilized. We’ve also got self-destructive impulses. We do things we know we shouldn’t do, things that could sabotage our happiness.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat,” he talks about this desire for self-sabotage, calling it PERVERSITY. Werewolf stories, to me, are allegories about these internal conflicts. They’re essentially Jekyll and Hyde stories: a person ceding control to their primal, savage, id-based urges and endangering their connection to humanity.
The answer here also connects back to your question about Michigan. When I was young, I always had woods nearby. My grandfather built a small cottage in Pentwater, and I loved spending hours wandering those woods. Near my house in Grand Rapids, we had undeveloped acres of woods that my friends and I would play in, ride bikes in, whatever. I still love hiking and spending time in the forest. So, placing a werewolf in rural Michigan seemed like a great way to incorporate this need to escape civilization and just run wild, away from other people.
MM: Given that one of Michigan’s greatest claims to supernatural fame is the infamous Michigan Dogman cryptid, I’m totally inclined to agree that centering a werewolf story in rural Michigan just feels natural!
Something else that really caught my attention with The Beast in Aisle 34, especially when comparing it to other werewolf stories, is just how physically present the werewolf actually is in the novel. In An American Werewolf in London, for example, less than 10 minutes of the 97-minute runtime is actually devoted to showing the werewolf itself. In The Beast in Aisle 34, on the other hand, you frequently describe Sandy’s changes and his time spent as a lycanthrope.
Was the frequency of the werewolf’s physical presence in the novel a conscious choice on your part while writing? And, if so, what do you think it adds to the narrative that other werewolf stories might be missing?
DD: This is one of the advantages that books have over visual media like movies. For a movie, the director has to figure out how to show the creature. It’s expensive and tricky. Every minute the creature is on the screen is a risk that the illusion will be broken because the thing doesn’t look believable. American Werewolf did it well, but not too many others have (in my opinion). So, I think that’s why it’s kept to a minimum.
More importantly for my novel, spending time with the beast is key to the conflict. The story is about a 30-year-old man named Sandy who has never been truly comfortable with his own identity. He’s not the most masculine dude, not sporty or athletic like his father. He’s stuck at a job that he doesn’t love. His marriage has been strained by his wife’s infidelity. He feels like he’s never quite fit into society.
When he transforms into the beast, he suddenly becomes this apex predator, top of the food chain, dominating the woods, fluid and powerful and absolutely comfortable in his skin. While he’s the beast, Sandy (the man) is conscious of his actions, but it’s as if he’s intoxicated. He’s like a viewer, watching the action through the windows of the beast’s eyes—partially in control, partially not. As the novel progresses, he can feel himself—his Sandy self—being pushed aside in favor of the monster’s desires.
So, the conflict explores this question: Should he hold tight to his human identity, or should he let himself be seduced by the animal power of the beast?
MM: That “spending time with the beast” really helps to solidify the metaphors at the very heart of The Beast in Aisle 34 and explore the central conflict in a more meaningful way than a run-of-the-mill werewolf narrative might be able to. I also think it acts as a really great tool for striking that important balance between horror and comedy that you’ve achieved in the novel, which we discussed earlier.
The Beast in Aisle 34 also bucks the werewolf status quo with the point at which readers enter the story too. When we first meet Sandy Kurtz, he has already been a werewolf for about 100 days, and we learn later what his first metamorphosis was like. Conversely, most other werewolf stories introduce the protagonist before they become a werewolf, and they often put great significance on the scene of the first change and the violence it typically entails.
What inspired you to introduce Sandy to readers as a werewolf first and foremost, and why did you choose to recount his first change as a recollection rather than a key plot point?
DD: I’m glad you asked this question. I teach fiction writing, and one of the prompts I’ve used in class is from Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writers Workshop. The exercise is to describe a fantasy creature using as much concrete, sensory, physical detail as possible. Bring the creature to life by appealing to the senses, getting down-and-dirty with the nitty-gritty description.
Sometimes when I assign in-class freewriting, I like to do the writing along with the students. That’s how the opening scene came to be: I described this werewolf named Sandy Kurtz perched on his rooftop, preparing to hunt. For about four years, I would inadvertently stumble onto this handwritten scene in my notebook, and I was fond of it, but it took a long time before I decided to try to continue the story. This free write is almost exactly (with a few revisions) how the scene appears in the book.
Also, I learned from writing my first novel that starting in medias res (in the middle of things) is the best way to approach novel-writing. Kick-start the conflict right away. Momentum is vital, and if you can begin the story with a sense of motion, with conflicts already bubbling to the surface, it helps.
It helps not only from a writing perspective but also is more entertaining for readers. Readers can tell that something is already at stake, and it pushes them to read on. Then fill in the characters’ past events by using flashbacks and summary.
MM: I never would’ve guessed that the novel was inspired by an in-class writing prompt! It just goes to show that even the small things we do as practice for writing can eventually inform and inspire large-scale projects with a lot to say.
I’m also sure The Beast in Aisle 34 will make for the perfect response to any students you might encounter in the future who dare to malign their freewriting assignments, haha!
With The Beast in Aisle 34 set to come out at the end of September (and just in time for the October spooky season), what’s next in the works for you?
DD: I have a completed horror/Gothic novella titled Let Gravity Seize the Dead. It’s dark and (hopefully) unsettling. Whereas Beast is a comedy, this one definitely is not.
Beck Randall moves with his wife and two teenage daughters into a cabin built one hundred years earlier by his grandparents. The cabin, deep in the woods, has stood empty for decades. Once there, the daughters discover that their ancestors have left an imprint of suffering and terror in the fabric of the nature that surrounds them.
For this book I was definitely influenced by writers like Noy Holland, Shirley Jackson, Kathryn Davis, and Samanta Schweblin.
MM: After experiencing some of the darker moments of Sandy Kurtz’s journey (especially toward the end of The Beast in Aisle 34), I’m certain that Let Gravity Seize the Dead will not disappoint in the horrific and unsettling departments!
Before closing, I just want to extend my utmost thanks to you for your time and your thoughtful responses, and I want to urge our readers to check out The Beast in Aisle 34 for themselves!
Readers—if you are a fan of werewolves, LARPing, Sasquatch hunting, internal struggles with external consequences, or Michigan, The Beast in Aisle 34 is the novel for you! And, if you are a fan of short fiction with strange or uncanny elements, definitely check out The Big Baby Crime Spree and Other Delusions as well. You will not be disappointed!
For my final question, I’d like to ask on behalf of all interested parties: where are the best places we can go to find more of your writing and to keep an eye out for more information on your upcoming novella?
Maxwell Malone is a horror and weird fiction author from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan currently masquerading as a technical writer on California’s Central Coast. His work has appeared on the award-winning NoSleep Podcast, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, and various YouTube narration channels. You can find him on Twitter @maxwell_irl.