Sleepless Mat Johnson makes a spine-chilling splash on Netflix

By Lillian Karabaic (OPB) and Winston Szeto (OPB)
Dec. 23, 2023 2 p.m.

The University of Oregon professor of creative writing is behind “The Black Cat,” the fourth episode of horror series “The Fall of the House of Usher”

Mat Johnson standing in front of a black background with ghosting in front of his face.

"I do comics and I do novels and all these different parts of writing and the world of writing, just keep it fresh so anytime there’s something new to keep it fresh, especially if I can bring it back into the classroom in Eugene, I’m down for it," said Mat Johnson, who is a professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon. He co-wrote the episode "The Black Cat" in the Netflix series "The Fall of the House of Usher."

Courtesy of the University of Oregon

If you have been watching Netflix recently, you might have noticed the hit show “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The series, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, had a moment — it captured 14 million viewers in just two weeks after its release this fall.


And it has an Oregon connection — one of the co-writers for the fourth episode, Mat Johnson. Johnson is a professor at the University of Oregon teaching English, creative writing and comic studies. He and director Mike Flanagan together wrote the script of the episode called “The Black Cat. He joined OPB “Weekend Edition” host Lillian Karabaic to discuss the series.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Lillian Karabaic: OK, so for those of us who haven’t watched “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Black Cat,” can you give us a brief idea about what the show and the episode are about?

Mat Johnson: Mike Flanagan, the showrunner, and Intrepid Pictures, the company he has with Trevor Macy and a bunch of other wonderful people, they’ve done these stories for Netflix that are kind of not really the exact tale of what happened, but inspired by great horror literature. So the first one they did was “The Haunting of Hill House.” The second one they did was “The Haunting of Bly Manor.” And with this one, they did “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which was inspired by all the wonderful, creepy Edgar Allan Poe tales. And so every episode is inspired by a different Poe tale, very different, but that was the inspiration.

And so I was in the writer’s room with, I think, seven other people. We talked through the entire season together, and tried to help Mike come up with the best version of his vision. So I did the fourth episode during the pandemic when I didn’t have to go in every day to teach, I was able to do that.

Karabaic: So how did you end up getting involved with the project of “The Fall of the House of Usher” in the first place?

Johnson: Well, I’m primarily a prose writer, and I also write comics, and I’ve been doing that for 20 years. And then recently, Hollywood has started to come knocking on my door more about my getting options to my books. And that happened for a while. And then I just figured, why don’t I actually try and do this myself? It looks interesting.

I’ve been locked in a room alone writing, so the opportunity to go work with all these other people is way more attractive than I ever would’ve thought. And so that’s how it started. And then I started writing and pitching my own stuff and selling my own stuff. And eventually, I started getting work on other shows. And this was the second show that I worked on two years ago. And so as a writer, there are so many different types of storytelling you can do, and it’s an exciting time, particularly in television or streaming television right now. So I’ve been dabbling my feet elsewhere.

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Karabaic: So what was your experience with Poe’s writing before you got pulled into this project?

Johnson: Well, Poe wrote one novel, and it was early enough in novels that it meant “novelty” — it was something that really wasn’t done. And he even describes what if it’s like link stories that go together towards the larger story. And it’s this book called “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” And it ends in a complete cliffhanger that kind of makes no sense, even within the context of the novel.

And over the years, a lot of different writers have tried to imagine sequels of it. People like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells have been inspired by this book. And so I wrote an imagined sequel, the focus on the aspect of race and Poe in 2011. And the book was called “Pym.” And it’s hopefully a funny book as well. But it was probably the biggest book that I have done so far as far as audience reach.

And so when they were working on Usher, they were looking for different perspectives on Poe and different understandings of the text and different inspirations by it. And so that’s how I got in.


And, usually, anytime I’m going to work in a writer’s room, it’s because I have some nugget of information that can help the showrunner with their vision. Really, it was an incredible amount of fun, and we were laughing every day and I’m really kind of enjoying it. And I think the most rewarding thing about the process is seeing that the final version of the show captures that vibe, and it has this kind of unique kind of dark humor vibe that none of the other projects had. And so that was really exciting.

Karabaic: The only real way I want to consume a thriller is with a little bit of laughing — the world is dark enough as it is.

Johnson: Right, right.

Karabaic: So how do you find screenwriting different from writing novels and comics?

Johnson: Well, one, I’m stuck in my own head when I’m writing novels. And in comics, it’s a little better because dealing with one other person, or at least the illustrator and usually editors and things like that, but they’re still very kind of internal and quiet. They’re work that’s going to be reproduced in someone’s brain not performed out loud.

And so in screenwriting, the process of creating it the way we do television writing rooms right now is so much more of a public event. There’s a group of you in there, and there’s all the dynamics that go on with a group of people trying to create, but there’s also this massive public audience for it that consumes it in a very public way. I mean, we don’t live in a culture really anymore, where somebody reads a book and you can go and do your office and four other people are reading the same book at the same time. But when shows get released, it’s a cultural phenomenon. And everybody at work, you mentioned Usher, and immediately all these other people will have seen it or are playing to see it.

And so, that part of the process is different as well. The difference between whispering in the dark into somebody’s ear in a closet and standing on a stage in front of 14 million people and performing that way. And both of them have their kind of truths, but they also bring out really interesting artistic parts as well.

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Karabaic: Has this brought you more love for writing this new genre?

Johnson: No, I mean, I always loved television. I never imagined — I’m a mixed Black kid from Philly. I grew up in a working-class household. The idea of working into television was just unheard of. And I’m Gen X, and there were not a million different channels and no streamers and stuff like that.

So, I never even thought that someday I would get to do this thing. But I’ve always loved television, and so the way I relaxed from writing a novel was going and watching TV. So to be able to then jump into the medium was exciting and new. But from a personal standpoint, I’ve seen everything and have a knowledge of television love that goes back to “M.A.S.H.” and “All In the Family.” So it was really cool to be there in some ways, be brand new, but in other ways couldn’t be more familiar.

Karabaic: That’s so cool. All right. So now that you’ve had a lot of success with this episode that you wrote of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” What is happening next for you?

Johnson: I teach full-time at the University of Oregon. This term I got to teach a screenwriting for television class, which was so cool to be able to do screenwriting at the highest level on TV and then go in and work with undergrads at University of Oregon and tell them everything I learned and worked on. So I’m going to keep doing that. And also, I do comics and I do novels and all these different parts of writing and the world of writing, just keep it fresh so anytime there’s something new to keep it fresh, especially if I can bring it back into the classroom in Eugene, I’m down for it.

Karabaic: So do you sleep?

Johnson: No, I actually don’t. I really don’t. I have to go to a doctor to figure out how to sleep, but besides sleeping, I’m enjoying my writing.

Karabaic: Well, thank you for staying up and providing us with these great stories. It was a delight to have you on.

Johnson: Thank you.

Karabaic: Mat Johnson is a professor of English, creative writing and comic studies at the University of Oregon. His writing is part of the TV show, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” on Netflix.