I’m in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eleven!

So, wow, this is a dream come true. For the past eleven years, one of my white whales, those elusive goals, has been to make it into The Best Horror of the Year, and it’s finally happened. (I’ve been long-listed seven times.) I’ll be in Volume Eleven, out in September of this year. It’s for a shared narrative that I wrote with Kristi DeMeester, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt, entitled “Golden Sun.” This novelette, which was in Chiral Mad 4 (edited by Michael Bailey and Lucy A. Snyder, and published by Written Backwards) was quite a challenge. We talked about how we should not only link our stories, but do something fresh and different. I mentioned the idea of us writing a “Rashomon” (based on the 1950 movie directed by Akira Kurosawa)—four perspectives on a singular event, each with their own truth on what happened. We each got a member of a family—mother, father, daughter, and son. The missing piece was the daughter in the middle—literally missing. We talked about setting—forests, houses, asylums—this was about chirality after all, but pushed hard to set it somewhere that wasn’t expected—the beach, in the daytime. It was not easy, but I knew that by working with three very talented authors, three of my favorite writers working today, we had a chance to do something special. So to see the recognition from Ellen Datlow, for us to make it into this anthology—well, it’s thrilling, an honor.

Full TOC below:

  • I Remember Nothing by Anne Billson
  • Monkeys on the Beach by Ralph Robert Moore
  • Painted Wolves by Ray Cluley
  • Shit Happens by Michael Marshall Smith
  • You Know How the Story Goes by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
  • Back Along the Old Track by Sam Hicks
  • Masks by Peter Sutton
  • The Donner Party by Dale Bailey
  • Milkteeth by Kristi DeMeester
  • Haak by John Langan
  • Thin Cold Hands by Gemma Files
  • A Tiny Mirror by Eloise C. C. Shepherd
  • I Love You Mary-Grace by Amelia Mangan
  • The Jaws of Ouroboros by Steve Toase
  • A Brief Moment of Rage by Bill Davidson
  • Golden Sun by Kristi DeMeester, Richard Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt
  • White Mare by Thana Niveau
  • Girls Without Their Faces On by Laird Barron
  • Thumbsucker by Robert Shearman
  • You Are Released by Joe Hill
  • Red Rain by Adam-Troy Castro
  • Split Chain Stitch by Steve Toase
  • No Exit by Orrin Grey
  • Haunt by Siobhan Carroll
  • Sleep by Carly Holmes

Interview with Brian Hodge (Part Two): It’s All the Same Road in the End

Part Two of my group interview with Brian Hodge continues, with his second story in The Best Horror of the Year—quite the accomplishment. Read on!

“It’s All the Same Road in the End”

(Originally in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran, and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow.)

QUESTION ONE: You begin with a cool, mysterious opening, then you proceed with a lot of backstory about the grandfather. Often, we are advised to not go too far into backstory, but in this case it really worked. Why did you decide to include so much, in a sense risking taking us out of the story? (And presume an editor/teacher would urge us to cut. So feel free to include any decisions you thought might be “breaking the rules.”) I’m wondering how you felt confident that it worked, and why you thought that as well.

ANSWER ONE: I don’t think you risk taking the reader out of the story when the past is so vital to the present that, without it, there wouldn’t be a present at all. It’s all the same story in the end, too. With this one, everything hinges on the events of fifty-odd years ago, so it’s imperative to understand what happened, or as much as the modern characters know of it. The reader has to know what drives them, what haunts them, what pulls at them and repels them. Without that, they’re just going through a set of prescribed motions that aren’t fully motivated. And even though Old Will, the grandfather, isn’t an active character, it felt important that he still be a presence and, ultimately, his voice be heard. History is repeating itself, generationally speaking … it’s just that nobody realizes that until it happens.

So the key is marbling the past throughout the active present, and optimally at the point at which its influence becomes most relevant, rather than front-loading things too heavily. Or trying to show things strictly chronologically. The onion metaphor is good here. You keep peeling those layers back. The past and the present continue to unfold together, and you see the membranes of connective tissue.

QUESTION TWO: How do you manage to make all that backstory interesting and “in the moment” even though it’s all memory? Are there techniques you suggest we try to avoid info-dumps but still feel vital to the story?

ANSWER TWO: I’ve addressed some ways of handling backstory in earlier questions, but another thing that occurs to me is that I try to render it in such a way that, instead of being dry, inert data, it’s more interactive for the characters. Like, it’s provoking some sort of emotional reaction or an intellectual conundrum, or it sets up a conflict in values. Anything like that. Ideally, you make it clear that this past stuff is something that strongly impacts the characters’ lives here and now. When it’s clear that what happened then matters to what happens now, or what happens next, it’s going to be more compelling.

QUESTION THREE: If you don’t mind, how long did this take you to write and edit? Do you plan it all out ahead of time, or pants through? Some writers might dance with a short story for months or more, how did this one unfold for you?

ANSWER THREE: I don’t remember how long it took, exactly. Somewhere between two and three weeks sounds about right. I didn’t plan everything out in advance, but I did have a decent idea of the general arc. With just about everything I tend to fall somewhere between plotting and pantsing. Like, I’ll have a sense of story or character arcs, and have in mind certain milestones, but there’s still room to figure other stuff out and surprise myself along the way, as most everything else develops more organically.

QUESTION FOUR: How much pre-planning and sketching do you do for characters in short stories? Do you give them more, or less, or different treatments than in a novel? For example, one brother starts out kind of a mama’s boy talking to her all the time, and the other seems more independent, yet their roles seem to invert at the end. Did you fully “know” these brothers, or did they evolve as you wrote?

ANSWER FOUR: It varies, but I give them a few paragraphs in my notes, at least, and more for characters in novels than in shorter works. I like to feel I know them well enough to get rolling, and then, as with any relationship, get to know them better as we spend more time together. That way, they have their own autonomy. They’re open to surprising me instead of being puppets that always have to do what I say. Like, with Young Will, the younger brother, I had no idea he was going to stay behind until right before he did.

The ideal place to reach—and it happens more with novels than with shorter stuff, because of the duration and investment of time—is where the characters start meeting you halfway and doing some of the work. I can usually count on it happening around 60 or 80 or 100 pages in. Sit down at the desk in the morning and it’s like calling a team meeting: “What’s everybody up to today? Really, you’re sure? Okay, I can get on board with that.” And off we go. That’s a great place to get to. Everything feels so warm and alive then.

QUESTION FIVE: Regarding planning out a story…do you know you want to leave clues like the photo of the woman, the cattle call of the song as you wrote this, or did you pepper those in later, after a draft or two? We thought those types of clues were the primary reason we found the backstory interesting, little compelling bursts of weird and unsettling clues. Really, really well done.

ANSWER FIVE: None of those were later drop-ins. All of that I knew about before I ever started writing anything. That’s not to say I never go back and weave elements in later. But in general, I like to do as much of the heavy lifting upfront as possible, so that the revision process is more about refinement and pruning and fine-tuning things to as high a degree as I can manage. That’s just the way I work, what works best for me.

QUESTION SIX: Where did the idea of this story come from? And the woman, the hag, or alien, or Baba Yaga, or whatever she was—is that based on a story you heard, legend, myth? Ditto for the calling/culling song.

ANSWER SIX: It came from what turned out to be a Photoshop manipulation of an old picture I found online, tarted up with a caption that it was the last photo taken by some folklorist who went missing. But it was really evocative, and totally sparked my imagination, so I kept it around on my hard drive for a few years until I felt ready to use it as the springboard for something that could go way beyond what the caption suggested.

The cattle call? That’s a real thing…an ancient thing, actually. The Swedish word is kulning. You can find examples of it on YouTube. I first encountered it at the beginning of a compilation CD of Nordic folk music called Wizard Women of the North. And other places since then…like black metal artist Amalie Bruun, who records as Myrkur, did it at the beginning of her 2017 album, Mareridt. It’s a lovely sound, and I would imagine it’s quite haunting at a distance, lilting over the fields and through the trees. I thought it would be an obvious reference point for the descendants of Swedish settlers in the area—they’re hearing something that’s sort of like it, but not really, and they can tell something’s wrong with the woman doing it, because the intensity of it is absolutely terrifying.

QUESTION SEVEN: There were some haunting moments in here that really were dependent on setting and sensory details. This is always important in my work. I’m thinking of how you show Daisy, the meteorite, and how they change after touching it. Is this a conscious choice, and do you consider yourself a maximalist? A choice of genre? Just your style? Or do you pick the moments to unpack and slow down, to immerse your readers? (Or all of the above! LOL). I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of setting and sensory detail, especially in horror.

ANSWER SEVEN: A few years ago I began regarding the dichotomy of minimalist and maximalist as personally irrelevant, and started thinking of myself as a muscularist. Yeah, it’s a made-up word. I guess it was in a review, although I don’t remember of what, or where I saw it, and someone used the phrase “tight, muscular prose” to describe whichever work of mine they were covering. And I really liked that. I liked the metaphor of words as muscle tissue. It was also appealing because I’m avid about working out, with an emphasis on things like functional fitness and strength and movement.

If you think about a well-toned body, you recognize that muscle density isn’t the same everywhere. In some places it may be very lean; in other places it may be bigger and bulkier. It’s what it needs to be according to its function within the whole system, and ideally, going from one area to another, it’s all nicely contoured. There’s a visual flow.

So if you apply that metaphor to prose, then you start thinking about the functional fitness of lines and paragraphs. If you have something that’s necessary but easily conveyed, or transitional, you keep it streamlined. But if you need to, say, take the reader inside an intense emotional state, or weave various setting and sensory details that work together to create a mood or atmosphere, which in turn affects the psychological state of the reader, you go heavier, and build up a passage that flexes harder, so it can hit harder.

Ideally, too, whatever the word volume is, it’s tight and compact, not flabby. Even before the muscularist term occurred to me, I was already thinking of the later revision process, looking for more words to cut, as sweating off ounces. My ultimate goal is that, however many words there are, they all survived, and are there, for a reason.


Visit Brian at his WEBSITE or TWITTER or AMAZON.

Interview with Brian Hodge (Part One): On These Blackened Shores of Time

Last year I taught two of Brian Hodge‘s stories in my Advanced Creative Writing workshop, online. They were both pretty amazing. One of my students (Ian Vogel) reached out to Brian, and the next thing I knew we were sending him questions, and talking in depth about his stories. This is something I do with my Contemporary Dark Fiction class, but not so much with the ACWW (because our two-hour slots are usually full, and I don’t know all of the authors in the anthologies). But when we had an opening in our schedule, we decided to send him some questions. And we got some amazing answers in return.

I’ve become a huge fan of Brian’s work over the last couple of years, and he has really pushed me to write better—to take chances with my stories. (Note: funny story—my first professional sale, “Stillness,” was to Cemetery Dance for Shivers VI, and I just happened to publish alongside…you guessed it…Brian Hodge. (As well as Stephen King, Peter Straub, Kealan Patrick Burke, Brian Keene and a bunch of other hacks.)

I hope you enjoy the Q&A here.

“On These Blackened Shores of Time” 

(Originally in Children of Lovecraft, and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Nine. Both were edited by Ellen Datlow.)

QUESTION ONE: I love how you handle backstory, with the history of coal counties sprinkled in throughout the story. You don’t over describe the protag but give us enough to know him. But the weight of history was masterful. Is there a decision tree you use or a set of “filters” you use to choose meaningful backstory? Such as you might construct something meticulously for specific reasons, whereas some of us stumble into ways of handling backstory. (Speaking only for myself, hah.)

ANSWER ONE: It primarily comes down to what’s relevant, and what’s intrinsically connected over time. You have to know the history of your world, however small it may be, or discover it for yourself. If there’s any filter, it’s answering some form of this question: “If I didn’t include this, or if I pulled this out, would things stop making sense? Would they weaken, or not hang together as well?”

In this piece, it’s two tragedies that are linked over nearly a century, through cause and effect. There’s one timeframe in which competing agendas, and baser emotions like prejudice and anger and greed end up creating one tragedy. Even 90+ years later it’s not completely over and done with…the original tragedy is still unfolding when it breaks through into the modern day and creates another tragedy among people who had no idea about the first one. Then, underneath them both, there’s this mystery that goes back maybe hundreds of millions of years, and exerted its own mechanistic influence.

I think of backstory, a lot of times, as answering fairly simple questions and providing logical motivations. Like, here’s why Character A has this phobia; here’s why Character B hates Character C. It provides context so their actions don’t seem arbitrary. But with this particular novelette, I think the past goes beyond backstory, because it’s more complex, with a lot of different elements that are integrated and interrelated. Anywhere you go on this planet, the same geographical location encompasses vast layers of time, some of which have left a residue. And in this particular spot, they happened to line up and interact with each other not just across decades, but over geological timescales. So that requires a lot of detail.

QUESTION TWO: The ending was heartbreaking. I think most authors would have tried to save the boy and kill the grub-man. You did the opposite. Why did you make those choices?

ANSWER TWO: Oddly enough, perhaps, I don’t consider that a choice I consciously made. I’ve seen written works described as creations that are less constructed from scratch than unearthed like artifacts. That’s what this was like, so where it ultimately went seemed like a foregone conclusion to me. It felt all along like, hey, this is what happened—now, how can I relate it with as much feeling as possible?

A couple of clarifications. The sole surviving miner you call the grub-man…his form has actually become that of a labyrinthodont. That’s a general subclass of amphibians that were some of the more dominant forerunners to the dinosaurs. And nobody’s saving him. He’s asking for death and Trevor is about to deliver, although not out of anger or vengeance, but compassion.

QUESTION THREE: You avoid a lot of tropes with both Lovecraft’s oeuvre and your own backstory and character choices in your stories. How consciously do you make those decisions? This might be one of the most “humane” Lovecraft-inspired stories I’ve read.

ANSWER THREE: It feels less about making conscious decisions than about my fundamental approach. I’m not trying to mimic, or replicate, either in content or style. I’m just trying to be as authentically myself as possible, even when what I’m working on is like coming over to play in someone else’s yard. So that means carrying in my usual fascinations and obsessions and concerns and sense of aesthetics and so on. Several years ago I was hired to write a novel in the Hellboy universe, and after it came out, I remember seeing reactions like, “It feels like one of his other novels,” as if there was some surprise about that. Well, yeah. Because I’m trying to give you the best version of what I’m uniquely capable of, rather than an imitation of someone else that would probably miss the mark.

QUESTION FOUR: You nail some major universal themes in this story: familial loss, loneliness, the primal fear of the dark and the power of nature. Did that happen organically or was it more constructed?

ANSWER FOUR: It’s hard to establish themes upfront, like a checklist. It’s more likely that you recognize them in hindsight, once you have a completed work. In this instance, these themes arose naturally out of taking the core ideas and pursuing them where they led and massaging them into shape.

There was more real-world stuff that fed into this than you might’ve guessed. Five years ago, here in Colorado, we really did have a 1000-year flood. More than a year later, right in front of a friend’s house, the street really did collapse beneath one of his neighbors, as the guy was leaving for work. The entire neighborhood really did have no idea they were living over a mine from the 1920s, and it really had been closed in the shoddiest possible way, and the shaft really was washed out from below by floodwaters. Plus both my grandfathers were miners back in Illinois, and the brother of one of them really was involved in violent riots when scabs were brought in during a strike.

So that was a lot of raw material already, and it was easy to start asking the kind of fruitful questions that take you somewhere: What if Don’s neighbor hadn’t come safely out of the hole? What if the hole was much deeper? What if there was a whole mutant ecosystem down there? What would be the worst-case scenario of losing someone down a shaft like that, and what would it do to everyone involved?

But after you start coming up with answers for yourself, it’s real, thinking, feeling beings that have to embody the experience, and find out these answers for themselves. It becomes a matter of going as deep as you can to weave as strong a tapestry as possible out of all the sorrow and hope and grief and fear and longing and anger that would inherently arise out of such a situation. No matter how fantastical the premise may be, to me, it still has to be grounded in plausible human experiences. Does that part feel genuine? If it does, then I think it goes a long way in selling the rest.

QUESTION FIVE: I wrote in my notes, “Goddamn it, Brian can make mine history tense, how does he do it?” So…do you have any techniques you can share as to how you create tension and build the intensity in your stories?

ANSWER FIVE: The biggest favor you could do for yourself is to Google the concept of “micro-tension” as proposed and expounded upon by Donald Maass, and read whatever you can find that he has to say about it. Or, better yet, get some of his books on fiction writing, because he really does know his stuff. He’s a literary agent, but before that, he was a published author and an editor, so he’s in the unique position of being able to analyze how fiction works, and understand the whole business aspect of it all, from three different professional perspectives.

In a nutshell, micro-tension is the continual infusion of unease within a scene, that will pull the reader along because of the sense that all is not right. It doesn’t have to be anything overt. It can verge on the subliminal. It can be implemented with elements as granular as word choice, observations about the setting or environment, dialogue that implies things that aren’t being said…so many ways of doing it, really, and the beauty of it is that it can be applicable to any genre you happen to be writing in.

So I definitely rely on that, along with a grab bag of other approaches. In this particular piece, there was an escalating sense of what was at stake, and what was waiting to be found at the end of the parents’ search. Throughout, there were layers of mysteries, as things continued to unfold. And I strived to use those techniques to build a mounting sense of dread, that whatever was coming, it couldn’t be good … and then ultimately tried to make it even worse than you might have expected.

You’ll also notice that I broke that extensive mine history into two chunks. I initially wrote it as a single scene, a story-within-a-story, but then it seemed too long, too much at once. So I found a good split point, and put a family scene in between them, which itself ended on a cliffhanger of sorts: “What have you done?” So, as the reader, you keep leapfrogging through.

QUESTION SIX: Picking up on [the previous] questions about universal themes, one thing that really impressed me about this story was how it put the concepts of deep time and old ones into a human context. How did you hit these cosmic notes while at the same time keeping the story focused on the bonds of family and real human emotion? That is something I have not seen much of in cosmic horror. The last line really sealed this as a story about real people.

ANSWER SIX: Characters have always been my top focus. I’ve always considered them Priority One. I consciously made that decision at the very beginning, when I got serious about writing, my first few months out of college. I figured that if the reader was invested in the characters, that’s the thing I could always count on that would pull them through, regardless of what genre I was writing in. It would be universally transferable. So even though I may be hitting those cosmic notes, they’re still seen through the eyes, and challenging the perceptions, of the characters.

QUESTION SEVEN: What prompted some of your choices about the family—the jobs the parents have, the role reversal with the mother, and the ways they handled the situation?

ANSWER SEVEN: Over the past decade, I’ve trained in and practiced Krav Maga, the hand-to-hand combat system of the Israeli Defense Forces. For a couple of more advanced weekend intensives, one of our guest trainers brought in was a body language expert and special squads operator from the California Highway Patrol. Fascinating guy, and the stuff he imparted was riveting. I usually find that with training like that, I want to know more, and one thing leads to something else, and further resources.

So, for these characters, the father’s career path was loosely inspired by a former FBI agent and nonverbal communication specialist named Joe Navarro, and over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some badass women instructors. Drawing on all that, I thought these two would make an interesting couple, with a promising dynamic, and not a pair you’re likely to have seen before in this context. They could plausibly get shit done, because they wouldn’t be rendered helpless by an overpowering situation. Plus I liked the idea of Ginny, the mother, being the true prime mover here, because, being purely into defense and counter-offense, she actually feels less bound by the law than Trevor, the father. She’d be the one to tell you that it’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six, so for the sake of those you love, always respond accordingly.

QUESTION EIGHT: You do a great job with the inciting incident and narrative hook at the start (both broadly intriguing and appealing, as well as relating to the specific incident, and how it personally resonates) as well as the ending, the climax, resolution, change, and denouement. Do you have any advice on how to connect those elements? What’s your process? (Start with hook, write it later, when it all comes together, plot ending, or organically let it develop?)

ANSWER EIGHT: Really, I can’t improve on the way Trey Parker and Matt Stone broke down the way they approach their scripts for South Park. Instead of “this happened, and this happened, and then this happened,” they think in terms of “this happened, so this happened, and therefore this happened.” Or “this happened, but then this happened, so this happened.” These may look similar, but there’s a vital distinction. Instead of a string of events that you hope connect, it’s that as a storyline progresses, everything emerges as a consequence of the actions and the decisions that have gone before. So there’s a logical through-line, even if it doesn’t seem obvious as you’re first encountering it. Everything else is mainly world-building and being true to the characters.


PART TWO tomorrow: “It’s All the Same Road in the End.” Visit Brian at his WEBSITE or TWITTER or AMAZON.

review: Short Story Mechanics with Richard Thomas

Some very kind words about my classes, and teaching. Thank you so much, Jenn.

Jennifer Shelby

My first writing teacher was my high school’s gym teacher. What could go wrong?

There we were: a small group of sensitive, bespectacled book nerds, our heads full of poetry, our thoughts a jumble of hormones and innocence, eager to pursue our dream of becoming a writer.

Toss in an angry meathead who doesn’t want to teach writing or have any respect for the craft. Boom. Mentally dismembered young writers, their unwritten stories bleeding on the linoleum floor, wondering what the hell hit them.

The experience turned me off writing classes for decades.  I wrote here and there for the following year, a twinge of PTSD with every word. That passed with time, and writing became a joy again.

After my first small publications, I wanted my writing to grow further and faster than craft books and critique partners could take me. I took a deep breath and hunted around…

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For Horror Films to Truly Linger, the Endings Must Resonate

(Warning: Spoilers for Suspiria, Mother!, Hereditary, and The Witch.)

Over the past couple of years there has been a rejuvenation of contemporary horror films. Some are calling it “evolved horror” others might lean into “literary horror,” but whatever you want to call this impressive wave of new horror, the key to success comes in a powerful, layered, impactful ending—one that resonates, and stays with the viewer. Let’s look at four examples, to see what works, and what doesn’t.


THE FAILURE

Suspiria (2018)

Description: “A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.”—IMDB

For the majority of this film I was mesmerized—the art direction and cinematography, the acting of Tilda Swinton and (surprisingly) Dakota Johnson, the homage to the original, and the new ways in which the film cut, and moved, and captured our attention. On the big screen the film was immersive.

So it was such a disappointment to see the ending come apart. Not just in small ways, but an epic failure of biblical proportions. What went wrong? First of all, the shift in tone. What had been a stylish, creeping, alluring film turned into a splatterpunk ending, the gore feeling out of place. It just didn’t match most of what came before. I know, I know—the dancing scene, the bending, breaking, and crushing of the dance next door. But there was so much TO that scene—style, emotion, dance, music, sensuality. On top of the gore, the special effects and CGI at the end were terrible. I don’t think the look they were going for was Fraggle Rock horror. Muppets aren’t scary. It was laughable. What had been a truly special journey into madness, old spirits (or witches), and gaslighting descended into B-movie violence and unintended humor. Not good.


THE QUESTIONABLE

Hereditary (2018)

Description: “After the family matriarch passes away, a grieving family is haunted by tragic and disturbing occurrences, and begin to unravel dark secrets.”—IMDB

This was one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time. It was stylistically filmed, the actors were once again amazing (Toni Colette, especially), and it was very original. It kept me on my toes the whole way through, lots of surprises, including the various beheadings, bursting into flame, ants, reflections, and other unsettling moments. Tense throughout, the gore was sprinkled in here and there—which worked. Not shock just to shock, but building up to intense moments, where the visuals and weirdness matched the tone.

So what happened at the end?

It wasn’t nearly as bad as Suspiria, but it wasn’t as strong as I think it could have been, either. First, there were the lingering shots of naked cult members, and their decapitated torsos. Whenever the camera lingers on something as gory as that for too long, there is a chance that it will overstimulate the audience, who will either look away, or find it distressing, or even humorous. It’s a delicate balance. Add to that the huge information dump about Paimon, and it’s a less than satisfying ending. Yes, there were clues about what was coming, but until that information was spoon fed to us, we never could have figured it out. And that was a mistake, I think. Not a critical error, the film will still be celebrated, but a bit clunky and heavy-handed.


THE INTOLERABLE

Mother! (2017)

Description: “A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.”—IMDB

That description doesn’t even HINT at what’s coming. I should have known, having seen Requiem for a Dream, that director Darren Aronofsky was going to challenge me. And he did. While the ending for Requiem was intense, not allowing us a place to breathe or relax, Mother! does the same thing, for much longer (fifteen minutes versus five). The film was a brilliant allegory, told in colorful, surreal, almost reverent tones at time, slowly cranking up the tension. And for the bulk of the film, I was mesmerized. Where it went off the rails was the fever dream, the baby eating, the span of time that went on and on and on. In hindsight, I do understand better what Aronofsky was going for, but if people are walking out, if they don’t finish the film, then what have you really accomplished? I know he wants us to see the depravity of man, to suffer along with them, but at what cost? Risky. I do think what comes AFTER those scenes, the rebirth, the loop, is effective. But the journey—very difficult. There’s problematic, there’s polarizing, and then there’s a total disconnect.


THE SUCCESSFUL

The Witch (2015)

Description: “A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.”—IMDB

I think that this film was one of the main movies that helped usher in the new wave of horror in cinema. Another beautifully shot movie, the atmosphere and setting is amazing. Excellent acting by everyone, especially Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin. The danger in the woods, the puritanical times, the religious fervor—it’s done so well. Bit by bit, we see the family destroyed—the baby stolen (and eaten), the son possessed and killed, the twins gone mad, the mother as well, the father gored by Black Philip—so tense. In the end it is the Devil (as the goat) and the witches in the woods that lure Thomasin to a life of sin. The line has been quoted to death by now, but it’s still so very powerful—“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” the Devil asks? And her answer is yes. Having lost everything else, her family betraying and abandoning her long before Satan takes over, she embraces this darkness, and joins the coven. The entire breathless conversation between them in the shed, the disrobing and long walk into the woods, the nude witches genuflecting around the fire, and then ascending into the sky, closer to the moon—it’s gripping. For some, this film might not even be seen as horror, based on the old school way of looking at the genre, but that assertation would be wrong. There are many shades of tragedy, many styles of horror—different flavors, and intensities.


IN CONCLUSION

All of these films are polarizing, that’s for sure. And the range of horror that is coming out these days is very exciting. But for a film to stay with us, to stand the tests of time, to be watched over and over again, and savored? It has to end with a bang, a whisper, an unsettling revelation, as well as a powerful epiphany and denouement, something that lingers, and pulses, living on.

Ten Questions with Kelly Robson About “A Human Stain”

 

I taught Kelly’s story, “A Human Stain,” in 2018 in my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop—as a story that stood out, over at Tor (a Nebula Award winner, too). I’ll teach it again in 2019, since it made it into The Best Horror of the Year anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow. I wanted to take a moment to ask Kelly some questions about this story, as it does so many things well. Not only did it educate me, as an author, and keep me on my toes, but I know it inspired my students, too. So here we go.

SPOILERS BELOW!

  1. Where did the idea for this story come from, Kelly? Is it based on any myths or fables? I read a lot of non-fiction, which is filled with ideas for stories. In this case, I came across a tidbit about a village in the Alps where the mountainsides are so steep that people actually walk across the roofs to get from house to house, and the only access to the outside world is via boat. I was fascinated by that kind of isolation. And I also was reading a book about governesses. For a long time, it was the only paid job available to a middle or upper class woman, and it was a socially isolated situation. You weren’t a servant, but not a family member either. Psychological and physical isolation is really important to horror, I find.
  2. I think setting and atmosphere is crucial in horror. How did you go about creating such a dense, authoritative, and unsettling backdrop for your story? Is any of this based on places you’ve actually been? Definitely not anywhere I’ve been! But I did grow up in in a remote place and I find that to be much more frightening than the city. People are much more vulnerable when nobody is around—you can’t count on help from anyone.
  3. I am not a huge fan of gore in horror, but that’s just me. Don’t love it in film, either. (I thought it was nicely restrained in Hereditary and The Witch, for example.) But it has a place, and done well, it can really be one important note in a larger orchestrated piece. How did you decide when, and how much to show here, as far as the visceral, unsettling, graphic moments? I’m thinking of the violence toward the end, especially, with both Mimi and Helen, their jaws, etc. I’m not sure it was one decision, but iterative over a lot of drafts. One thing for sure, is I kept trying to get more and more specific over the revision process. The enemy of horror is vagueness. You can choose not to show something, but you can’t be vague about it.
  4. Speaking of which, can you explain what was going on with the wires and their mouths throughout? I believe that snakes smell by opening their mouths (with their tongues, actually). Is that what was happening here? The wires are a form of mind control. Peter’s pheromones make his caregivers feel an ecstatic hunger drawing them to the sibling grubs down in the cellar. The wires keep her under control and turn her from a protector into a brainless, selfless caregiver (see next answer).
  5. I also wanted to ask you more about the boy, Peter. Is he actually a boy, or is he much older? There is some knowledge and dialogue toward the end that made me wonder who and what exactly he was. Why is he seeking the bones? Why does he want to eat the grubs (and his brother!)? Do elaborate, please. He’s a child. He’s not human though. The family members go through a metamorphosis from Grub > Pale Child (Peter) > Handsome Young Adult (Barchen) > Deteriorating Prematurely Aged Adult > Monster. I put lots of clues for this in the dining room scene. He wants to eat the grubs for the same reason many baby birds peck their siblings to death—get rid of the competition! Peter’s influence over Mimi and Helen make them want to eat them too, because under his influence they are 100% about Peter’s needs.
  6. I love the way you balance the humor and darker aspects in your work, in this story. Is that always a part of the give and take of your storytelling, allowing us a place to relax, breathe, and maybe pull in more humanity, more relatability, into the tale? That snark and attitude of Helen kept this story from getting bogged down in something historic, that could have been a bit dry, caught up in details. My initial versions of the story had a different Helen, who was much meeker (though still a lesbian). I had to give Helen more oomph to make the story work better. Often when one of my stories isn’t working, I have to change or tweak the main character.
  7. I also love the bit of sexuality / sensuality that you worked into this story, as well. Another layer to the story. Not to mention how Helen sees, and seeks out Mimi. It helps reveal her character (as well as Bärchen’s). Was this a conscious choice to work in their sexuality and identity? Yeah, totally conscious. The story is basically about how parenthood can often be a terrible thing for women, because it requires so much sacrifice of the self, and I wanted to emphasize that tragedy by the man and woman in it being emphatically non-sexual toward each other. Barchen knows he’s doing a terrible thing when he leaves Helen there, but he doesn’t think he has a choice. He has to find a replacement for Mimi before Mimi breaks free. It’s a horrible thing he does. Just horrible.
  8. The fact that the serpents / parents were guarding the salt mines, this being the family fortune, was quite compelling. Makes me wonder exactly how old they are, and whether they are the same creatures, or if this is a long line of destined beings. Can you talk about that a bit? They’re a long line of monsters who’ve been guarding the salt mines for generations. Salt mines used to be a huge source of Hapsburg money, and the monsters would be really good at keeping the mines safe.
  9. The ending! The slowly creeping hypnosis, the call of the cellar, and all that lurks there, and then the transformation of Helen. For an ending to truly resonate, for me, it not only has to build to something (usually a revelation), but there must be change, and then a denouement—something rippling out into the future—an understanding, an event, something both broadly terrifying and singularly unsettling. You do that well here, with all of the ways that Helen changes, and that last line of, “Oui.” BAM. So powerful. Can you talk about the ending, how much was plotted out, how much surprised you, and your decision to end it where you did? I often know my last line before I start writing. I always knew that would be the end, Helen taking Mimi’s place, and saying, “Oui.” The repetition is an effective technique, and it’s even more effective, I think, because it’s a foreign language to Helen. It emphasizes that her personality has really been degraded and subsumed.
  10. What’s next for you? Can you talk about stories, collections, or novels you may have coming out in 2019 so we can read more of your work? Thank you for your time and generosity here. I really appreciate it. I have a short-story coming out at The Verge in February. Last year was really great, with stories at Uncanny, Clarkesworld, and in the anthology Infinity’s End, and a big novella Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach from Tor.com, which came out as a book. I’ve been working on the sequel to that and it’s been going—not well. Second books, it turns out, are really HARD. Argh. But all I can do is just keep plugging away!!!

 

GAK

RIP, Gak. You’ll be missed.

WRITTEN BACKWARDS

We recently lost an artist, a friend, an exemplary role model of human kindness. Gak will forever be with us, his work hanging on walls, filling the pages of books, some of his art even tattooed onto skin. His life will always be remembered because he always made ours a little better.

Below are the illustrations he created for The Library of the Dead, one of his final projects. We had future plans, so perhaps we’ll collaborate on those in the next go-round. Miss you, Gak. Your work speaks for itself …

von1

Illustration for “Those Who Shall Never be Named” by Yvonne Navarro.

lastthings3

Illustration for “The Last Things to Go” by Mary SanGiovanni & Brian Keene.

lannes

Illustration for “A Raven in the Dove’s Nest” by Roberta Lannes.

notthere

Illustration for “I’m Not There” by Kealan Patrick Burke.

chimera

Illustration for “A Chimera’s Tale” by Chris Marrs.

gonzales

Illustration for “I’m Getting Closer”…

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