Master of Horror To-Be: On the Nightmares of Nick Antosca
by Zack Graham
(above image: from “No End House”, season 2 of Channel Zero)
You probably haven’t heard of Nick Antosca, but you will soon. He wrote on one of the most psychologically nuanced and visually arresting television series ever in Hannibal; created and showran the uneven but rewarding Channel Zero on SYFY; and recently partnered with journalist Michelle Dean on The Act, a true crime series for Hulu, featuring fantastic performances from a psychotically overbearing mother in Patricia Arquette and her smothered, enfeebled daughter turned Lady MacBeth in Jean King. In late 2017, Guillermo del Toro signed on to produce Antosca’s feature-length script Antlers. At 36, Antosca is well on his way to becoming a modern master of horror, on par with a Robert Eggers, an Ari Aster, or a Jordan Peele.
Unlike Eggers, Aster, or Peele, however, Antosca didn’t always write for the screen. He began his career as a fiction writer, publishing a novel, three novellas, and a collection of short stories all before his thirtieth birthday.
Antosca’s fiction feels as clean-cut and originally terrifying as his television, but his poetic abilities amplify the unnerving nature of his tales. As his stark, searing sentences fly by, you feel as though you are falling into one of those nightmares from your childhood that frightened you so badly you still remember it.
Antosca’s debut novel Fires turns the world of Yale University into a festering, smoldering hell — think an Ivy League campus in the “upside down” of Stranger Things. The dark, scraped-out souls festering inside of Antosca’s debut include Jon Danfield, a directionless undergrad who falls for Ruth, a traumatized girl who is perpetually sick, and James, a childhood friend of Jon’s who is grappling with his abusive childhood. When Jon and Ruth fall out, Jon accompanies James back to the town where they grew up, a town in the process of being consumed by a wildfire: this wildfire will serve as the backdrop for a final act full of reconciliation, self-discovery, and pain. Fires feels sweating and foul and cramped, and the coherent voice and claustrophobic atmosphere Antosca maintains throughout the book make for a sensational debut.
A fragmented dreamlike novella entitled Midnight Picnic, reminiscent of Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, marked Antosca’s sophomore effort. The novella’s protagonist Bram, a West Virginian living with a deeply depressed girlfriend, one day encounters the ghost of a little boy who claims he was murdered by a man in the forest, and he solicits Bram’s help in exacting revenge. The book behaves like a shapeshifting creature bathed in moonlight, moving back and forth across time, shifting tenses and perspectives, descending into a world between life and death, devoid of dimension or meaning. Midnight Picnic works as a convex mirror of a novella, refracting a series of traumas, and is ultimately about coming to terms with loss.
Antosca takes a turn toward comedy with his third book-length effort, The Obese. Nina Gilten works as a freelance photo editor whose main task is making rail-thin models look even thinner than they are in real life when they appear in print. Nina’s glamorous, materialistic lifestyle takes a turn for the worse when a vengeful houseguest poses as Nina and releases information to a blog that results in Nina’s termination from her job. Nina is devastated, and begins to plot her revenge with the help of a male model hookup named Ferdinand, but all petty drama is rendered moot when a plague sweeps across Manhattan that turns its obese citizens into crazed cannibals in a comedy-horror send-up reminiscent of Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead.
Antosca’s fourth book The Girlfriend Game is a collection of short stories that serves as perhaps the best display of his wide-ranging capabilities as a fiction writer. Surrealist creature tales like “Rat Beast” and “Amphibian” read as Antosca’s takes on Kafka, while psychologically twisted stories like “Predator Bait” and the collection’s title story play more like Ottessa Moshfegh or Amelia Gray.
The 2013 novella The Hangman’s Ritual signals Antosca’s approaching turn to television and film. Ritual tells the story of Casper, a desperate and trapped single father who serves as a jailer at an ultra-wealthy man’s private solitary confinement facility hidden in the heart of Manhattan. The novella initially reads as if Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy were told from the perspective of the prison guard, but quickly opens up into a nuanced thriller in which nothing is as it appears. Despite being the weakest of Antosca’s five books, Ritual has all of the markings of a complete Hollywood thriller, and within its genre reads smoothly and intensely from beginning to end.
Antosca’s five books all came out through independent presses (Impetus Press, Civil Coping Mechanisms, Lazy Fascist Press, Word Riot), and garnered him little to no acclaim. Yet these five books constitute a strong, original body of work that straddles genre and literary influence. Taken together, the work proved a launchpad to Antosca’s career as a screenwriter and showrunner. These titles are perfect for fans of the horror, sci-fi, and true crime genres, and are must-haves for fans of Antosca’s television work. His worlds are singular and unique, full of wide fields, cramped narrows, and other structures harboring the sinister, the terrifying, and the unreal.
Zack Graham’s writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, The Believer, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle, and is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.