Our Siren of the day, from the Dark Arts Books anthology Sins of the Sirens (which you can purchase here and here), is Maria Alexander. But before we get down to it, please give her a big round of applause for her 2011 Bram Stoker Award Nomination for the poetry collection At Louche Ends: Poetry for the Decadent, the Damned and the Absinthe-Minded (Burning Effigy Press 2011)! On behalf of Dreadful Tales and our readers, we offer our deepest, most heartfelt congratulations for a well-deserved nomination. We are sacrificing baby goats and kittens to the Cthulhu Gods to ensure you claim your tiny castle!
I am completely enamored with Sins of the Sirens and obsessed with the authors included in this collection. Not only do these women possess the greatest siren weapon – “the ability to unveil vulnerability” – they’re also wildly diverse in style. Not just from writer to writer, but within their own stories as well. Although it’s our inclination to tag something as horror, fantasy, sci-fi, or a crossbreed thereof, you really don’t do these stories justice to do so.
Alexander’s back story is a lot like a dark fairytale, filled with downfall and triumph. She’s enjoyed the encouragement and friendship of horror genre icons, notably Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker, but, as is often the case in life, suffered great loss as well.
Blessed be the reading community, though, for Alexander turns all the good, bad, and ugly into rich, beautiful text to console the weak and humble the strong.
Alexander keeps the momentum going in Sins set by our opening act, Loren Rhoads. There are no boundaries she can’t cross, nothing to hold her back from telling the story aching to get out.
Alexander begins Sins of the Sirens with “Pinned,” a tale of underground sexual perversions that find Alyssa intoxicated by a man who may be bad for her health and her friendship. Her desire to make BDSM fantasies come true is too strong to resist and Alyssa finds herself pursuing the ex of her best friend. But sexual cravings aren’t so easily fulfilled in an Alexander story and Alyssa gets stuck between a rock and a hard place. Unfortunately, the hard place ain’t the male member. Or a dildo. Neither is the rock.
He pinched my nipples firmly, tugging until they were hard as oak.
Like I said, not even the tip of the iceberg, but perhaps that lil’ tease will satisfy the browser that keeps ending up at Dreadful Tales in search of “erect nipples!”
Following that is a fever-dream, absinthe-soaked, Lynchian period piece, called “The Dark River in His Flesh,” about a helpless addict Richard, whose drug is the love of the temptress Lillian, and a bit of absinthe too. I say Lynchian because if David Lynch penned a period piece, it might be a lot like this. A mysterious absinthe bar that can only be accessed by ragamuffin linkboys, smoke-filled, the scent of rich wine wafting through the air, houses a “trio of young female musicians” that play “an old French Renaissance tune in the far corner of the establishment.” For some reason, I recalled the strange bar scene from Fire Walk With Me. Like that movie, “The Dark River in His Flesh” is a strange trip, man. Here is one of my favorite excerpts from the story:
Struggling under the bulky nets of insobriety, Richard pushed through the room as 80 proof waves washed against his legs. A thunderclap underscored the trio’s quaint waltz, followed by the hiss of rain against the inky windows.
Alexander closes with the story most categorically horror of the bunch. See, there I go again with my labels! But seriously folks, “The Last Word” is a Twilight Zone of a tale. Albert has an affection for old things and comes across a blank book with Edwardian script that reads “This book belongs to:______________.” The journal starts speaking to Albert through its ghost entries, or is Albert unknowingly speaking to himself!? It starts innocently enough; the journal warns Albert of impending danger, but it quickly becomes a destructive voice coercing him to commit despicable acts. This is a quick psychological romp into a mad world of macabre twists. Here is a peak inside the madness:
He then sat at his desk, staring at the journal, wondering if it was a ghost. Or God.
Although I think everyone absolutely needs a copy of Sins of the Sirens, I must urge you to also pick up her Bram Stoker Award-nominated collection of poems At Louche Ends from Burning Effigy Press. Alexander weaves a melodious prose and whether the subject is a back alley junkie looking for God or an erotic interlude, the poems in At Louche Ends read like a beautiful song.
If you don’t think you’re into poetry, I would still highly recommend Alexander’s work. Just relax and let the music take you away.
Now, I’ll let Maria Alexander speak for herself. On to the interview!
ALEXANDER: It was at the 2005 World Horror Convention, I think, that John Everson approached me and shared his vision for SotS, which included Bel, Loren and Christa. I agreed on the spot. In fact, I think my exact words were, “Fuck yeah!”
DT: All 3 stories in this collection are quite different. “Pinned” is a modern, highly erotic voodoo tale; “The Dark River in His Flesh” is a period piece about an intoxicating fatal attraction centering around a mysterious absinthe bar; and “The Last Word,” set in present day (2006) Los Feliz, concerns itself with an old, enigmatic journal that “speaks” to its new owner Albert. Can you tell us about the inspiration for each of these stories? Why did these fit with the theme of SINS OF THE SIRENS?
ALEXANDER: I originally pitched “Pinned” to Jeff Gelb for the Hot Blood series—just a quick idea about a fetish that had intrigued me. He accepted the pitch but then I had Lasik surgery that didn’t go so well. (Can you say “complications”?) A lengthier than anticipated recovery meant I couldn’t turn in the story on time for consideration. SotS came along shortly thereafter. A painting entitled “Cupid as a Link Boy” by Sir Joshua Reynolds inspired “The Dark River in His Flesh.” (How completely wrong is that painting on every level? The answer is: way.) As for “The Last Word,” that came to me one night after I’d spent an especially long time pouring my heart into my mopey goth girl diary. I wondered what the diary would say to me based on the totally biased and miserable version of events I’d just given it. I figured it would recommend the systematic slaughter of humanity.
I can’t answer for John as to why he thought these were the best stories for the anthology. Both men and women transgress in these stories. I suspect he was going for something more meta, like we four writers are the “sirens” and our “sins” are these transgressive tales.
DT: You include the Aristotle quote “…all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind” in “The Last Word.” How do you combat that degradation and still make a living writing?
ALEXANDER: Aristotle clearly never worked for The Mouse. Writing for Disney has been intellectually challenging and rewarding, and keeps up my wordsmithing chops. The websites I’ve written for have won multiple awards and I sometimes get to work on fantastic projects, such as the online educational kids’ game, Habit Heroes. It ties into the Epcot® exhibit of the same name that just opened. In addition to co-designing the 3D game, I wrote most of the villains that appear on the website, and our super talented creative lead brought them to life in his artwork.
But to Aristotle’s point, corporate work buggers the spirit, if not the mind. I suspect he just wanted more time to lay about and philosophize.
DT: Both “The Dark River in His Flesh” and “The Last Word” deals with an adulteress. Why did you choose to focus the story, and the protagonists’ obsession and madness, on an unfaithful woman? Do you consider that the ultimate sin?
ALEXANDER: Adultery isn’t the world-ender than many people think. Any experienced marriage counselor will tell you that, although the problem is painful and soul-wrenching, most married couples work through it. In these stories, I was absorbed by the idea of otherwise good people becoming involved with nutty people and how the former’s lives go tango uniform as a result. They’re cautionary tales. In the case of “Dark River,” the story is about incorporating your Jungian shadow. It’s the only story I’ve ever written where I didn’t know the ending before I started writing. I beat the monkey in my head with a shoe until it vomited the ending. I showed it to the therapist I was seeing at the time. She said the ending was perfect from a psychological perspective, so the shoe beatings worked!
DT: Another commonality in both the aforementioned stories is inanimate ghosts. We have a ghost bar, Chanceux in “The Dark River in His Flesh,” and a ghostly journal in “The Last Word.” Why did you use these inanimate objects to haunt our protagonist? Or were these objects the medium of a much crueler entity?
ALEXANDER: Haunted houses are cliché. I just can’t do it. But I can haunt the hell out of anything else. What I love about Sarah Langan’s The Keeper is that she manages to haunt an entire town. That’s awesome.
DT: AT LOUCHE ENDS is “poetry for the decadent, the damned, and the absinthe-minded.” The introduction by Jill Tracy expounds on the intrigue of what was once an illegal substance, and much of “The Dark River in His Flesh” is driven by Richard’s absinthe-fueled nights. I have not yet had the opportunity to try absinthe, so I must ask – what is your obsession with absinthe? Do you write when drunk on it? If so, what influence do the intoxicating qualities have on your writing?
ALEXANDER: I’ve always loved the mystique of absinthe, the history and the hoax of its purported hallucinogenic properties. I’ve only ever written one thing while drunk on absinthe and that was “Dark River.” I wanted to be able to articulate exactly what it felt like. A lush friend read it and said, “Yup! You nailed it!” But seriously? Most absinthe tastes like crap. Plus, it’s legal now and that sort of wrecks the allure. Still, if I were back in Antibe, I’d definitely return to the absinthe bar, Balade en Provence, because the atmosphere is amazing. It’s this underground cavern full of period absinthe paraphernalia. Super cool for history and absinthe buffs alike.
DT: I am completely ignorant when it comes to poetry. My experience with poetry is limited to Edgar Allan Poe (because I was such a fan of his horror fiction growing up), Shakespeare (because I loved his tragic plays), and Charles Baudelaire (since it was required reading for a horror fiction class I took in college). Since it is this mostly unknown form of expression for me, I find it terribly intimidating. It reminds me of abstract art. You have an immediate, emotional reaction to what you see, make an assumption of the influence behind it, but often don’t know (until you read about the artist’s inspiration later) if what you understand of that piece is accurate. Simply, you surmise the meaning of it without knowing if that is the artist’s intention. And I feel that way about poetry as well. Any basic hints for new poetry enthusiasts who would like to understand this format better?
ALEXANDER: When you hear a song that sounds pleasing but the words make no sense—Tori Amos, The Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush come to mind—you probably don’t say to yourself, “I don’t understand this song. I’m intimidated by it.” If you like the music, you keep listening, right? Poetry is the same way. If you like the music of the words—the sound, the lilt, the emotions that the images evoke—you don’t have to understand every word. And even if we do understand every word in a song, we often take away different meanings than the composer intended.
But let’s face it…if it’s good poetry, you should be able to understand it. A lot of what I consider bad poetry tosses out some evocative words with shitty imagery and no art to the words. No music. No story. There’s so much of that sort of thing that I’m convinced it’s why people think they don’t like poetry in general. It’s the single most abused literary form in existence.
DT: At the time of this interview, AT LOUCHE ENDS has a preliminary nomination for a 2012 Bram Stoker Award. Congratulations! I just finished reading the collection and despite my inexperience with this format, I found it highly accessible while haunting and cryptic. How did this collection come to be?
ALEXANDER: Thanks, lady! I’m so glad you dug it. One day I was going through my writing and discovered I had a lot of poetry that I’d written since the last collection, Biting Midnight, back in 2001. The title came to me soon thereafter and I knew I had to get it out there. I immediately thought of Jill Tracy for the introduction and Katelan Foisy for the artwork. Fortune rained upon my dark little head when they both agreed to be part of it because I had envisioned it as an overall concept.
DT: Every poem in AT LOUCHE ENDS is emotionally intense and deals with deeply intimate and personal experiences, but I picked two in particular that really made my heart ache. They left a lasting impression on me, one that has ignited a new obsession for poetry I hope to pursue further. Could you tell us about the inspiration for those poems, “Divinity Dust” and “Occult?”
ALEXANDER: That’s so cool. I’m immensely pleased to hear it made you want to read more poetry, not less! I can recommend more poets, like Ann Schwader, Wendy Rathbone, Marge Simon and Denise Dumars (since it’s Women in Horror month).
I guess I’m surprised that so many people are specifically asking about “Divinity Dust,” but I shouldn’t be. Starting in 1994, I experienced a series of extremely powerful synchronistic events that changed my life. When the events subsided and I didn’t land where I’d wanted to in life, I felt abandoned, like Ford Prefect, standing out in a field with my electronic thumb, waiting for a lift back to wherever. I also felt angry. That’s when I wrote “Divinity Dust.” I was in withdrawal from all the metaphysical excitement. These days, I’m relieved to be out of that space and I’ve made my peace with God, the Universe, or whatever you prefer to call it.
As for “Occult,” I had gotten involved in a couple of quasi-relationships that never got off the ground because the men didn’t want people to know we were dating. Why? They were cheating, insecure, whacked in the head…whatever. “Occult” means “hidden,” which is how I felt. Clearly, it sucked and I wasn’t cool with it. And believe me, I let those men know. Oh, did I ever.
DT: “The Little One,” the last poem in this collection, is also accompanied by a French translation. Do you speak fluent French? How did you learn? Did you live there? How have those experiences influenced your writing?
ALEXANDER: The answer is “yes” to most of the above. I was dating a guy for three years who was French and a university professor. He got a one-year gig in France as the Resident Director of the California State University Study Abroad Program. I went with him, but not before we first went to Middlebury College for the summer. He was teaching a graduate course there while I audited the beginner’s seven-week, full-immersion course. I lived on campus and took the world-famous Middlebury Language Pledge: absolutely NO English or any other language other than French for all seven weeks. It ripped my ego to shreds, having to talk like a baby for the first few weeks. I wrote “Petite” around Week #4 of the course, after I’d learned a new verb tense we don’t have in English called the imparfait. By the time I got to France right after that, the French people I met thought I was I was a genius because of how well I could speak and comprehend after only three months. Trust me. I’m not brilliant. It was Middlebury. The program is extraordinary. I’m not “fluent” these days, but I’d be okay if you dropped me back in Paris.
While the relationship didn’t last, living in Aix-en-Provence and love for the language have radically altered me and my perception of the world forever. You begin to appreciate that other people just don’t think like you do or have the same cultural values. That their society functions under a different premise—not a wrong premise or bad premise, just different. It makes for better writing.
While there, I had an epiphany that changed my writing life for good. During one of my many excursions to Paris, I met and studied with Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Kathleen Spivack, who convinced me that I should be writing a lot more than horror, that humor was my true gift. Not that I didn’t believe her because that’s what my agent was also saying, but I was all, “Hey, I’ve got serious, important stuff to say, man!” Then I saw the movie Molière. The scene moved me where Molière’s wife is on her death bed and she’s begging him to use his humor to tell stories. All these voices echoed in my head—those of Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Carroll, and many others who’d urged me over the years to use my humor. That’s when I decided to follow Molière’s lead.
DT: Your writing undoubtedly has horrific qualities, but they are also tragic dramas about love lost. Do you consider your writing, in particular AT LOUCHE ENDS and the stories in SINS OF THE SIRENS, horror? Or would you prefer to use another classification?
ALEXANDER: I dislike classifying my stories because labels shut the door to some readers. Several years ago I submitted “The King of Shadows” to the Moondance Competition, which was sponsored by Oprah, Coppola and Variety magazine. The story was a finalist. Can you imagine Oprah putting her sticker on a horror novel? Yet “The King of Shadows” first appeared in Gothic.net.
Half of my stories are also crime stories. “The Last Word” is a great example. I think Rue Morgue Magazine called it a mystery. I love that. Even “Dark River” is far more noir than anything else, in spite of the supernatural trappings.
DT: You’ve had at least three (that I know of) stories/collections in the preliminary ballot for a Bram Stoker Award. I hope AT LOUCHE ENDS makes it into the final ballot and results in a much deserved little castle for your bookshelf! I’m sure the preliminary nomination was still exciting as hell. What other moments could you pinpoint as an “Ah, THIS is why I write” moment?
ALEXANDER: Thank you! Fingers crossed.
I wouldn’t say, though, that any of my close encounters with the Bram Stoker ballot qualify as the “why I write” moments. Those moments more typically arrive when I get random emails from readers who are moved to tears by one of my stories, who have felt healing from something I wrote, or who simply felt I understood them. Recently one of my humor pieces, “The Sparkle Dick Diaries: The Problem with ‘Jail Bite’ in Twilight and Other Teenage Romances,” got passed around on Facebook. I was able to trace who had “shared” the link and read their comments. To know people were laughing their asses off and sharing my angst was awesome. It’s those communal, unifying experiences that remind me why I write. And laughter is the most healing thing in the world.
DT: Just before Women in Horror Month kicked off, Maniac.com’s Top 20
Greatest Horror Writers of All-Time list came out. I am quite fond of many writers on that list, but there is the glaring omission of any female writers in that list! Not one stinkin’ woman! Not that women stink, but you know what I mean. What do you think of lists that so casually omit the exhaustive efforts of female writers?
ALEXANDER: Wow. That’s kind of a fuckwitted list.
To be fair, I don’t know what criteria Mr. Janson was using to put together this particular list, but in my opinion Daphne du Maurier, for example, blows away half of the authors on that list. You wanna know why Alfred Hitchcock adapted more of her stories than any other writer? Check out The Birds or Rebecca. Joyce Carol Oates? Shirley Jackson? Are you going to tell me with a straight face that every single one of those authors is greater than Shirley Jackson? I don’t think any of the living writers on that list would say that. I’d argue that Edith Wharton was a better ghost story writer than M.R. James. But then, a lot of people don’t know Edith Wharton wrote ghost stories. Neither do they know Daphne du Maurier wrote The Birds.
To exclude such important writers—whether they’re male or female—reveals a narrow view of the genre. And by narrow, I mean fuckwitted.
DT: In an interview with Brad Hodson you said “We need more literary horror.” The best examples of “literary horror,” which I simply call “smart horror,” are from female authors like Lisa Mannetti for example. Who are some of your personal favorites, men or women?
ALEXANDER: Daphne du Maurier. Bel Wilson. Elizabeth Kostova’s book, The Historian, has a gorgeous, highly literary style (but it has no plot, so never mind). Tim Powers, especially with The Stress of Her Regard. Clive Barker—God, how I love him. And Julio Cortázar. I cannot recommend his short story, “The Night Face Up,” highly enough.
DT: What’s next for Maria Alexander?
ALEXANDER: Humor. Lots of it. I’m currently searching for an agent to represent my thriller satire. Think Airplane but for thrillers. And I’m writing a humorous memoir about the events that preceded “Divinity Dust.” Imagine I’m giving you my best and most serious Tenth Doctor look when I say, “Hold on tight.”
Plus, and this is really going to sound nuts, but I have all these science fiction stories piling up in my head. Some based on dreams. Others based on crazy situations in Los Angeles. Even something I saw working at Walt Disney World Resort this last fall. I think they’re really all social satire in science fiction drag, but again, let’s forget classification and just go for kickass funny stories that say something about how we’re living.
DT: OK, last one 🙂
Vincent Price has invited you to the House on Haunted Hill and he wants you to pick the other four guests. Who do you pick, dead or alive, and why?
ALEXANDER: Richard Dawkins. If there’s any bullshit, he’ll detect it. He’ll probably annoy the hell out of everyone else and I’ll enjoy watching that.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If I have to explain why I’d pick him, it’ll make the baby Jesus cry.
Hedy Lamarr. Inventor of technology that would be the basis of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Actress. Incredibly brave and resourceful.
Roberta Brown. She was my first sword teacher. She still teaches swordplay for film and stage, is super smart, and has a wonderful sense of humor. Lord knows we’d need all the humor we could get!
Thanks again, Maria Alexander! And best of luck at the Stokers!