Escaping Into Horror: In his new novel, James Han Mattson explores the politics of horror

Set around a “full-contact” house of horrors in mid-’90s Nebraska, Reprieve is a smart, harrowing and insightful tale of racial fetishism, runaway capitalism and hate politics, a decidedly relevant and timely exploration of the dark side of media and entertainment.

Mattson provides a galvanizing setup for Reprieve. Each of the five cells at Quigley House is occupied by gore-covered actors, who are permitted to hit, punch and spatter muck on the visitors, who are sometimes allowed to retaliate. The first contestant to use the safe word, “reprieve,” loses the chance to take $60,000 home with them. The owners claim to have made at least one payout.

Mattson was born in Seoul, Korea, and grew up in North Dakota with adoptive parents. He’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and has taught writing at various institutions including University of Iowa, University of Maryland, Murray State University and UC Berkeley. He is the current fiction editor for Hyphen magazine.

During a telephone interview, Mattson described how living in North Dakota was difficult as a gay Asian kid.

“It was pretty white,” he said. “It’s kind of a bleak state. It’s very cold and very flat. And if you don’t really fit into the ethos of North Dakota, it’s not really a nice place to be. I struggled, and I got out as soon as I could.”

Mattson attended college in nearby Minnesota and left for the Bay Area after graduation. He settled in Oakland, near the Grand Lake Theater, and worked for a couple of years at a now-defunct copy store, where he assembled readers for UC professors. Having earned an MFA at Iowa, he twice returned to the East Bay as a member of the faculty of the UC Berkeley Summer Creative Writing Program.

“Coming back 10 years later, it was great to actually be teaching there,” he said. “It was like a little homecoming.”

Like many horror enthusiasts, Mattson cut his teeth on Stephen King novels, as well as those of spinner-rack regulars such as John Saul and Bentley Little.

“When I got older,” he said, “I started reading Clive Barker, because I thought he had a certain sophistication that I appreciated. But he’s also really gross.”

During his time in Berkeley, Mattson worked for a while at the French Hotel, where he occasionally read horror novels during downtime. That’s where he decided to try to write his own novel.

Although familiar with novelistic and cinematic horror, Mattson was unaware of the haunted-house subculture until, while idly scrolling in search of horror-movie trailers on YouTube, he happened across ads for extreme haunts, where participants might actually be hurt.

“I was obsessed. I couldn’t believe people did this sort of thing,” he said. “I started researching this underground industry and found that people really love these things.”

Reprieve proved to be vastly different from Mattson’s debut, The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves. Inspired by the case of a college student who committed suicide after being surreptitiously livestreamed in a moment of intimacy, Lost Prayers might be emotionally wrenching, but it isn’t a horror novel.

“The thing they have in common is multiple perspectives,” Mattson said. “I like being able to see an event or situation from a whole bunch of different lenses.”

Mattson builds a dynamic cast of characters for Reprieve.

Forced to move to the Midwest after the death of her father, teen Kendra Brown takes a job directing parking-lot traffic at Quigley House and sees the attraction as an escape hatch from living with her mother and aunt. Hotel manager Leonard Grandton becomes friendly with the haunt’s owner, to the point of traveling—at his suggestion—to Thailand to check out the sex tourism there. Jaidee Charoensuk is a more reluctant participant, his attendance precipitated by his long-time obsession with his high school English teacher.

On April 27, something at Quigley House goes horrendously wrong. An intruder makes his way into the last cell and holds a real-looking knife to the throat of one of the actors. Is it all just part of the show, or is it a genuinely life-threatening situation that not everyone one in the room will survive?

Reprieve is an effective page-turner, not merely in its race to a bloody conclusion, but in the ways Mattson reveals the inner psychological workings of his characters.

“What resonates for me with the [horror] genre is the authenticity that comes with terror,” Mattson said. “When somebody’s in a life-or-death situation, you see a true self emerge.”

It’s rarely a pretty sight.

Before he became interested in haunts, Mattson was working on a book set in Thailand. But the more he learned about terror in the Midwest, the more that scenario appealed to him.

“I had these two projects going simultaneously, until I realized that they were the same novel,” Mattson said. “Thematically, I thought the ideas behind racial fetishism and horror linked so well.”

Racial fetishism is definitely one of the major themes that runs through the book. Both Jaidee and Leonard find their lives spinning out of control because of their misconceptions about sex, race and class.

Mattson said that both racial fetishism and horror involve dehumanization.

“When you talk about racial fetishism, you’re talking about whittling a person down to preconceived ideas based on culture,” Mattson said.

“With horror,” he continued, “you also have to strip the humanity away of the people who are being slaughtered, because if you don’t, you’re sort of sociopathic. To enjoy horror, you have to think of the victim as something that doesn’t have complex humanity.”

Why would anyone subject themselves to the horrors of Quigley House?

“I think [the patrons] gravitate toward haunts because they feel safe,” he said. “It’s all curated for them, and they know they’re not actually going to suffer. Back in the real world is where they feel less safe.”

As for the title, Mattson chose it long ago.

“I wanted it to mean a lot of things,” he said. “I wanted it to mean specifically a reprieve from the nastiness that was happening inside the haunt, but also a reprieve from the daily horrors of life.”

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