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This conversation originally aired in the Oct. 29, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
Mike Allen is an award-winning science fiction, fantasy and horror writer based in Roanoke, Virginia.
Besides writing, Allen also runs Mythic Delirium. It started as a fanzine that published sci-fi poetry. Now it’s a publishing imprint that puts out books.
Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams visited Allen’s Roanoke home to speak with him about his writing and publishing. Adams started by asking how Allen first got into fantasy and horror as a child in Wise, Virginia.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Allen: In third grade, my teacher read to us “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe for Halloween. Most of the kids in the class reacted in one way that was kind of like, “Haha, that was cool.” Whereas I, being kind of a sheltered child who had no real way at that time to process the darkness that was in those stories, they really, really deeply freaked me out. In a way that reverberated for years. I had night terror after night terror. So that was one thing.
Another thing would have been that around that same time, the animated adaptation of “The Hobbit” came out on television. I watched it and thought it was really, really cool. My father, who was a really hardcore fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, watched it with me. When he heard me talking about how much I liked it, he said, “Ah, that was terrible. It’s nowhere near as good as the book!” And [he] made me read “The Hobbit.” That started me reading “The Lord of the Rings” and books that were kind of connected, like the “Chronicles of Narnia” by Tolkien’s buddy, C.S. Lewis, and from there expanding to many more works of fantasy.
In Wise, there was, I believe still is, a small public library. That to me became a sort of castle of adventure. I recall walking to it up this very steep hill, and going exploring, looking for all these different fantasy and science fiction and eventually even horror books that I essentially learned about through my own research.
Adams: When did you actually start writing?
Allen: My final year of college — this would have been in ‘92 — I sold, and I suppose I could put “sold” in quotes, a kind of cyberpunk-ish, short story to a zine called “Gateways.” This was a pay-in-copies zine, which means that you were paid with a copy of the zine. That gave me just enough encouragement that I began to pursue it with pretty ferocious dedication.
Adams: So can you tell me a little bit about how you got from that point, as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, to where we are today, sitting on your couch here in Roanoke?
Allen: The publications I was able to land after I graduated from Virginia Tech ended up laying enough groundwork that I was able to apply to and get accepted into the Hollins University creative writing program. The final thing I wrote at Hollins became the kernel of what was my first professionally published story, a science fiction story called “Stolen Souls.”
Fast forward to a year after I graduated from Hollins, I took on my first editing project. That project was an anthology called “New Dominions: Fantasy Stories by Virginia Writers” — and it’s one where I paid in-copy to the people who participated because that was still a somewhat acceptable thing then for a zine. To skip ahead again, my experience with “New Dominions” is what laid the groundwork for me to start the zine “Mythic Delirium.”
That zine created a platform where I ended up actually working with the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Joe Haldeman, Ian Watson, Jane Yolen, and a number of writers who were just kind of starting out as I was starting out who have gone on to become huge in the field like Catherynne M. Valente or Ken Liu. They had pieces appear in “Mythic Delirium.” I also began publishing books by some of the authors that I worked with. And that is what I still do now.
Adams: I’m curious as to what you see when you look at Appalachia. What’s it look like from your perspective in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror world?
Allen: So here’s an interesting thing for me: Roanoke is unique. Some of it, I think, actually goes back to Nelson Bond having been based here, who was extremely active in the 1930s and ‘40s and ‘50s in the magazine scene that existed at that time. Writers like Sharyn McCrumb were making Roanoke, or at least the Roanoke region, their home base. Roanoke has this very robust culture for celebrating its writers, regardless of what they write. Those of us who are based here like myself, like Rod Belcher, who writes under the name R.S. Belcher, or Amanda McGee, who’s an up-and-coming writer whose work is definitely Appalachian and has a bit of witchery involved, we’ve experienced the benefit of that.
There’s no way for me to kind of sweepingly talk about everybody with an Appalachian connection. But there are some I do want to mention. Nathan Ballingrud, who lives in Asheville, is a horror writer who’s had some really high profile things happen lately. His first short story collection, “North American Lake Monsters,” was adapted into the Hulu series, “Monsterland.” The title story in that book, he considers to be an Appalachian story. I mentioned Rod Belcher whose novels have events in West Virginia and the Carolinas. Manly Wade Wellman might be the classic Golden Age writer who’s most associated with the Appalachians. He has a series of stories about John the Balladeer, or Silver John, who is a gentleman who has a guitar strung with silver strings. He wanders through this magical realist version of the Appalachian Mountains and has encounters that are very much based on Appalachian folklore.
Other writers I wanted to mention: Barbara Hancock, who writes under Willa Reece, lives in Ferrum, Virginia. And Cherie Priest, who lives out on the west coast, but whose debut “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” was based in Chattanooga, when she lived there. She wrote a whole trilogy based in the folklore of that region. She may be best known for the novel “Boneshaker,” which combines zombies with steampunk. It kind of hit like at the perfect time to do that, and it was a pretty big hit.
Adams: For people who are interested, what’s the entry point into your work that you’d recommend for them?
Allen: I don’t know that I would call myself a straight up horror writer. But whenever I write, whether it’s science fiction, or fantasy, or mystery, or what have you, it always ends up with a really strong horror element. I have two collections of short stories. One is called “Unseaming” and one is called “Aftermath of an Industrial Accident,” and they both contain a lot of stories that are very explicitly set in Appalachia in southwest Virginia.
Mike Allen is a writer, editor and publisher of Mythic Delirium Books.
Anita Allen, A Paranormal Investigator
Mason Adams also interviewed Mike Allen’s wife Anita Allen, a paranormal investigator who is working on nonfiction books to be published under an imprint of Mythic Delirium Books.
Anita Allen: We moved here in ‘71. And then when I was in first grade, something moved into my parents house. To this day, I still don’t know what it is. It’s not human. We know that. And it’s not aggressive. So it was just something we learn to live with. My sister and I named him “Larry.” Trying to figure out what Larry was, is what got me into research.
My mom’s response to pretty much any question of “why?” was, “There’s a book, look it up.” We had the Encyclopedia Britannica in the same room that the ghost lived in. So if you wanted to figure out what the ghost was, you had to sit in the basement with the encyclopedia and try to figure it out.
It took me a little bit to realize that science didn’t know and didn’t have the answer for what that was.
Adams: Can you describe another case?
Allen: When we moved in, the gentleman that lived here was actually killed by hit-and-run right out front here by the mailbox. His cat came with the house. And from growing up dealing with my ghosts, I’m very comfortable communicating with ghosts. I don’t have a problem with it. It’s kind of second nature.
So I knew there was a ghost here. And I was a little concerned about that. I was hoping he would leave as soon as we moved in. But he made it very clear: We were welcome. I did all the things you do to let them know you’re moving in. Basically, the reason he was staying was his cat. He wanted to make sure that she was okay. And so he stayed on for about 10 years until she passed.
The day she passed, he was gone with her.