James Han Mattson on the real-life horrors behind Reprieve
It would be easy to read James Han Mattson's new novel and assume he is a master of the macabre. Reprieve (out Oct. 5) takes place in a full-contact haunted escape room in the middle of Nebraska: A contestant at Quigley House is brutally murdered, and the story traces the lives of the people who were present on the day of the killing. Quigley House, run by proprietor John Quigley, is a terrifying maze of emotional terrorism, with players forced to root through all-too-lifelike corpses and dodge assaults from hired actors to proceed from room to room. But Mattson himself isn't even a fan of haunted houses — "I'm much more interested in the people who build and frequent them," he tells EW — and takes no great pleasure in the crafting of gore.
He is, however, an avid reader of his fellow horror novelists. The author was born in South Korea and grew up in North Dakota, where people who looked like him were few and far between. He took refuge in books, and became hooked on Stephen King after reading his 1980 novel Firestarter. "He tends to have outsiders as main characters, and I really appreciated that," Mattson says. "I also feel like there's an authenticity of emotion that comes with being afraid, and I was attracted to that."
Years later, while working nights at a hotel in north Berkeley, Calif., and passing the time with more of the genre, he remembers thinking, "I could probably write this better." That became a personal challenge to pen his own horror novel — and after a few more near-pivots in his career, a move to Lincoln, Neb., a stint at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the publication of his 2017 debut The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves, Mattson has one of the most anticipated titles of the fall in Reprieve, a glowingly reviewed novel with endorsements from Kiese Laymon and Rumaan Alam.
His current insider status aside, Mattson's aforementioned sense of disenfranchisement looms largest in Reprieve. The victim of the Quigley House murder is a young Black man, and the witnesses to his death, whose stories are dissected in alternating chapters alongside court documents from the homicide investigation, include a Thai student enrolled at the University of Nebraska, a young Black girl forced to move to a small town from her native Washington, D.C., and a middle-aged white man who becomes increasingly obsessed with his social downfall and eventually travels to Thailand in pursuit of sex tourism.
The book began as a story set entirely in Thailand, exploring racial fetishism and other violence taking place in the country, but a moment of mindless scrolling — specifically, a YouTube ad for a full-contact haunted house — set Mattson on a tangent investigating who exactly was the kind of person that would pay to be in a waterboarding simulation (just one example of the kinds of terrors that await guests at these establishments). "I eventually realized this was one singular book," Mattson says of the two subject matters. "Fetishism, and its dehumanization, is actually inherently horrific."
The book takes place in 1997, but much of it feels eerily truthful to today's society — and its many pitfalls. Mattson wrote Reprieve after Donald Trump was elected president but says that while a few of the characters may have become more fleshed-out in the wake of what he saw in Trump's America, none of it was specifically inspired by his devotees. "Having grown up in the Midwest surrounded by so many white people, I knew a lot of people who had that sense of entitlement mixed with desperation," he says. Of the character Leonard, who travels to Thailand, Mattson says his actions stem from his desire to feel important, to feel admired for his whiteness. "Writing Leonard was unsettling," the author adds, "but getting into his head was simple."
Despite the haunting and occasionally nightmare-inducing world Mattson has created in his sophomore novel, he begs off the idea that he's set a new standard for the horror genre. "Some avid horror readers may be disappointed by the fact that this book isn't a gore fest," he says, pointing out that he intended the book to be a character study above all else. "But I think all of my writing is going to be tinged with darkness in some way." The novel he's working on next will follow that trend, as it's a story about a Korean adoptee who goes back to his birth country. It pivots the conversation to the topic of similarities between author and protagonist in Reprieve, which don't immediately show themselves.
"You can't actually escape yourself," Mattson says of writing. "Even when you're creating something new, you are confined by your experiences and your outlook. I don't have any of these characters' biographies, but I do have their senses of isolation, of alienation, of longing."