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Jacob Steven Mohr Interview

It’s no secret that I love epistolary fiction. For those unfamiliar with the term, the epistolary format uses found documents in place of standard narration. Stories are told through any combination of letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, e-mails, police reports, chat rooms, texts, etc. It does for literature what “found footage” does for film.

I’m particularly excited about this week’s interview because I have a direct connection to it. My short story “Tashlich” is one of the stories featured in Dead Letters, a new epistolary horror anthology from Jacob Steven Mohr and Crystal Lake Entertainment. Today, I’m talking to editor Jacob Steven Mohr about all aspects of the project—from putting the anthology together to his own relationship with epistolary horror.

Read the full interview below.

What made you want to edit an epistolary anthology?

I didn’t have a name for it for a long time, but I think I’ve always loved epistolary fiction—stories that aren’t told like stories, stories that pretend to be something else. My first exposure to it was Neil Gaiman’s “Orange,” which is told purely as answers to a questionnaire, without readers knowing the questions. I fell in love then and there, with the thrill of reading something that felt like you were discovering a story, rather than being told one. And so when I decided to edit a horror anthology of my own, there was really no other theme that suited me better.

(Also, Dead Letters is just a fun name, and I had to do something with it…)

I know you have a story in Dead Letters, but had you written any epistolary horror prior to that? If so, could you tell us a little about it.

I have! My first attempt was “1855,” which is classic epistolary—a single letter containing the story and a bit of ancillary matter at the front and back, detailing where and how this correspondence was archived. It was primitive, but it kind of locked in the general format that I would eventually request of my authors for Dead Letters.

My next try was a little more adventurous: “The Panic” is told entirely in emails and their attachments, including segments of televised interviews, descriptions of photographs, and a transcript of a very frightened young boy’s voicemail to his father.

But probably my favorite (and my strangest) is “Truth Serum,” which indulges the classic “this-story-is-trying-to-kill-you” cliché. That one’s got everything—coroner’s reports, texts, Tweets, Buzzfeed headlines, evidence logs, and one unnerving bit of found footage. What tips this one over the edge is the production Archive of the Odd put behind it… they actually recreated the formats of all the different kinds of documentation in the story. Reading it was an immersive experience, and I wrote the damned thing.

The Dead Letters call for submissions opened April 2023, but I remember hearing about it back in November 2022. What’s it like promoting and getting the word out early on about a project that’s still in the process of coming together?

That was a calculated move on my part. I was starting with a disadvantage—a relatively small online following. And I wanted to get as many submissions as possible in my two-month window. So as soon as the contract with Crystal Lake was signed, I basically got on the bicycle and started flogging the project on Twitter as much as I possibly could.

My invited authors (thanks, guys!) were a huge help in that too—they helped spread the open call’s reach far more than ever could have done on my own. Plus: opening early gave folks a whole five months to dream up ideas for their stories.

I think that extra creative time paid off. The stories in Dead Letters rule.

What’s your favorite epistolary work, either in literature or in film? Mine is probably a tie between Wendy Webb’s The Secret Skin and Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke for books. I also love the movies The Sacrament, Hell House, and Paranormal Activity 3.

lot of people end up leaving Stephen King’s Carrie off their lists (it’s easy to forget how much of that novel is epistolary). But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be “They Are Us (1964): An Oral History” by Jack Lothian. It’s a faux-oral history about the production of a cursed movie, and I will never forget it.

This table of contents is stacked (and I’m not just saying this because I’m in it, I swear). What was it like working with so many great writers in such a unique format?

It’s intimidating… on multiple levels.

One: I’m editing work from writers I’ve admired and taken inspiration from for a large part of my career in horror, so imposter syndrome sets in thick and fast. It’s like: What right do I, a known goof, have to change even one word of their genius?

Two: I’m also editing work from a few people who are just starting out, too. They’re trusting me with their words, and I feel responsible for making sure this first foray into professional publishing is a success. I hope I was up to the task.

Some of the stories in this anthology were invited, while others were chosen from an open submission call. The response to that open call was huge. How did you go about sorting through the submissions? Did the invited stories impact the direction of the anthology as a whole?

So, we got a little over 300 submissions to the open call. I tried my best to read them as they came in, but I did get a bit behind by the end. At first my goal was just to select the scariest stories of them all, but in the end we had so many that the goalposts moved—what the anthology really needed was variety. So once I had my shortlist, narrowing it down involved making sure I didn’t have types of tales repeating. And unfortunately, if a really good story was too similar to something an invited author had sent in, it had to go.

I’m always in awe of how stories or poems are ordered in collections and anthologies. Was it difficult to figure out the order for the table of contents? How did you come to the decision to open the book with “The Parthas UFO Incident” by T.T. Madden?

From the moment I read “Parthas,” I kind of knew it would lead off Dead Letters. I chose it because it’s kind of my platonic deal for the format: multiple epistolary form;, fragments of narratives forming a larger, more complete whole; an “official explanation” for why the documents are all in one place… I think it’ll be a Rosetta stone to teach readers how to experience the rest of the anthology. And—it’s just great horror too.

As for the rest of the TOC, the main goal was to alternate lengths of stories so you’re not reading two 7,500-word behemoths in a row, and to change up the styles and tones of the stories as best I could. I went through about 7 different orderings for Dead Letters before I settled on what ultimately went to print.

The epistolary format offers writers an opportunity to get pretty creative with how the story is told. Were there any formats submitted that really surprised you? You don’t have to say what that format is specifically if it’ll be a spoiler.

I can’t not mention Gordon’s story here. “Bury My Bones in the Bastard That Killed Me” uses a collection of epistolary forms—but the one that stuck most in me, ha-ha, was a note tied to a literal arrow that literally kills someone.

What’s wild is that’s not even a major spoiler.

QDo you have any other work coming out this year?

Later in December, my short story “Threads for Flies” will appear in Story Unlikely—be on the lookout for that one! And my first epistolary story will be reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 15 sometime soon as well.

Q. What’s your favorite recent read? Any genre. It doesn’t have to be horror.

I’m in the middle of Chthonic Matter’s Come October anthology right now, and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve also got to give a shoutout to Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts, which I read on the beach this year and just… devoured.

Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!

Dead Letters hits shelves on December 1, 2023.

Jacob Steven Mohr does not believe in human consciousness; his works emerge as though from the ether, fully formed and fully ominous. Selections of these can be observed in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Shortwave Magazine, Chthonic Matter Quarterly, Weird Horror Magazine, and The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 15. He exists in Columbus OH. Follow him everywhere @jacobstevenmohr

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