“Addicts are like vampires. We hide our behavior and feed off the living, siphoning their money, their sanity, their trust.”
Mark Matthews spent years fighting the insatiable monster that screams for more. He says that he still dreams about the electricity of cocaine, the soothing caress of heroin, the heaven in a bottle of Stoli vodka. But the party for him ended long ago. By age 23, Matthews was a wreck. He had alcoholic hepatitis of the liver, swollen pancreas, and a bleeding stomach.
After several failed detoxes, Matthews finally hit bottom and crawled into residential treatment. Getting sober was excruciating, yet rewarding. Equipped with his new recovery tools, he learned to manage life without killing himself. He returned to college and earned a Masters in Counseling and a BA in English.
Now, with 25 years sober, Matthews has built a thriving career that encompasses his two passions. As a certified addictions counselor, he’s dedicated to helping minds heal. As an author, he’s a master at using his characters’ addictions as a metaphor in the genre he calls “addiction horror.”
The Fix: What made you combine horror and addiction?
Mark Matthews: There is nothing more diabolical than the voice of addiction hijacking thoughts, rationalizing atrocious behavior. It plagues us with lies. Aw, come on, you can get high one last time. That monster’s voice that lurks within ignites seductive memories of how good that first hit feels. Addiction is deep in my blood. When I write, I put a knife in my heart and it spills all over the page. That force to get high can be equal to the will to survive.
Like a mirror image?
Yes. It’s the same strength that makes a drowning person fight to the surface for air. With addiction, the will to live is flipped and becomes self-destruction. Addicts are like vampires. We hide our behavior and feed off the living, siphoning their money, their sanity, their trust. We live in shadows, cursed with our affliction but unable to stop the compulsion.
Your stories show such empathy for your characters.
Oh yeah. I’m not demonizing the addict. Some of the greatest fiction comes from the deepest of personal pain. The blood we suck out of our families reminds me of The Exorcist, the most terrifying horror movie ever made. I see an analogy—a desperate, powerless mother trying to save her daughter from addiction.
What can you tell me about your new book, Lullabies for Suffering: Tales of Addiction Horror?
It’s available for preorder October 22. It’s a thrill that great horror writers are in this collection. It’s six novellas written by different authors—Gabino Iglesias, Caroline Kepnes, Kealan Patrick Burke, John FD Taff, Mercedes M. Yardley.
[Laughs] I’m the sixth. Addiction horror is an important reminder. Even after 25 years in recovery, if I used, everything I’ve worked so hard for—family, career, sanity—it would all be gone. But that monster doesn’t stop begging to be fed. My mouth waters just by thinking of vodka. There’s a jolt in my spine when a TV character snorts powder. I have using dreams. But it’s up to me to find joy in living and there’s nothing more badass than facing every day sober.
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Caroline Kepnes’ exquisite contribution to Lullabies for Suffering is “Monsters,” but you may remember her as the writer of YOU, the best seller that became the binge-worthy Netflix series. Horror master Stephen King tweeted about YOU, calling it “Hypnotic and scary. A little Ira Levin, a little Patricia Highsmith, and plenty of serious snark.”
YOU follows the demented path of creepy yet sexy stalker Joe Goldberg. Joe’s a sociopath who meets a woman in a book store, becomes obsessed with her, and uses social media to stalk and manipulate her. He’s a narcissist convinced that only he knows what’s best for her. Booklist called the sequel Hidden Bodies, “the love child of Holden Caulfield and Patrick Bateman.”
“Monsters” is another disturbing trip into the mind of Kepnes. Like all of her work, “Monsters” grabs you by the ankle. Interviewing Kepnes for The Fix was a titillating highlight in my lifelong devotion to dark humor and the scary books I’d push way under my bed. I love that thrill of terror.
The Fix: Any vivid memories of Halloweens past?
Caroline Kepnes: I grew up in Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. It’s a place so primed for Halloween. The seasons change, the days are shorter and the library is rumored to be haunted. My elementary school always had a parade. I loved being creeped out. In high school I went to a haunted house and got so scared that I punched someone dressed up as a zombie (sorry, Zombie).
Any plans for this Halloween?
In LA it lasts for a month and you see people in costumes in the grocery store at all hours.
Ever struggled with dependency on drugs or alcohol?
I’m a really addictive person. I saw myself in a lot of artists who battled addiction and it was so easy for me to imagine myself finding one thing that obliterates everything else. In high school, Sassy Magazine gave me an honorable mention for a story about a girl who is speaking from the afterlife. She died from an angel dust overdose. [My] guidance counselor was concerned.
Painkillers were tricky for me.
I get it. When I had emergency throat surgery they gave me liquid Percocet. Oh God, the way I held onto that bottle and begged for more. When my doctor refused, I couldn’t sleep. I was shaking all the time. Brutal. It gave me so much empathy for people who are in the throes of that growling, incessant beast.
In every book, and in “Monsters” for Mark’s anthology, I think of the height of my [Percocet] dependency and how to put that level of pain on the pages. When your brain is an exasperating place to be, there’s no escape.
Some of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know are in recovery. They have so much heart. They root for people [and] have this enormous capacity to care about others. That dazzles me … because my God, what a powerful thing, to be in the intimate, internal process of overcoming [an addiction] and simultaneously be so generous with your heart.
What makes you write such dark stuff? Black comedy seems so necessary during America’s surreal political nightmare.
[Laughs] When anyone says “black comedy” I light up inside like “Ooh-where-what-gimme.” I love being in the whirlwind of feeling amused, mortified, scared, disgusted, enraptured all at once. It feels genuine to what it’s like to be a living, breathing human.
Where do your ideas come from?
It’s just the way my brain works. I look at a basement [and] think, “Gee, I wonder who’s trapped down there?” I’m always wondering what people are capable of, why they do what they do, how they got there. I knew this was my jam in high school when I was in this summer-long intelligence experiment at Yale University. It was a college level class on abnormal psych. [We read] about serial killers, violent kids, case studies. I didn’t want to sleep.
Have you known any stalkers or scary fans like Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery?
Ha! Annie Wilkes [is] one of my all-time favorite gals. But I did have a stalker many years ago…. It was a terrifying experience and there was nothing even remotely funny or rom-com about it. It was a humiliating mind fuck.
Was Joe based on him?
In a sick way, Joe was … a way of revising that history, a personal coping mechanism for processing those phone calls and that terror that was with me for so long…. You watch movies where dreamy guys break boundaries to get with women. But [with my stalker] there wasn’t an ounce of Cusack in him.
Why do you think thrillers appeal to people?
I’ve met my share of monsters…I like to read about people who lack self-awareness and empathy and have logic systems that enable them to do terrible things. It’s empowering, in a know thy enemy sort of way.
Do you have a favorite movie?
I love The End of the Tour and watch it a lot because of the conversations about addiction to television. That was part of my way into Joe Goldberg—the danger of one-way street friendships that we cultivate with characters in books, TV shows, and movies. I go through phases where I’m depressed and hide in the TV, my drug of choice.
TV is in our phone 24 hours a day. People [like me] with addictive tendencies can get our hands on so much. What a miracle that a bottle of vodka can appear on your doorstep—a miracle and a horror. Writing helps me stay happy. It gives me a purpose and a healthy place to put my obsessive energy.
What thoughts do you have when writing about Joe?
I made him up out of that self-critical voice in my head. That’s the worst demon of all, your own inner-hater. The voice that sounds like the mean girls from middle school, the creepy stalker, the bitch from that time, a violent monster who gets away with it. That voice is the part of me that gets disgusted with myself, with others, that voice in my head is the most helpful thing in the world where writing is concerned.