Ladies of Sins of the Sirens: Featuring Mehitobel “Bel” Wilson, the Woman with Hair of Fire & Snow Leopard Skin

We’re halfway through the Dark Arts Books Sins of the Sirens roundup, but there will be no intermission and no reprieve for the weak. Moving right along into Mehitobel “Bel” Wilson’s world, we are challenged with the most emotional and heartwrenching stories of the lot thus far. Among her four tales, one is more disturbing than sad, and another is an exciting, sexually tense cat-and-mouse game, but there is a common thread of loneliness and isolation in her characters.

Before we get into Mehitobel’s stories, I’d like to share a few tidbits about her career. I feel like a record on repeat, but Mehitobel, like all the other women we’ve featured this month, has an eclectic resume. If she only mentioned her non-writing work, she still has a laundry list of unique experience. She’s had every job from dog groomer to model, cigarette girl to factory worker. I’m not sharing exclusive information here, though. That info is immediately mentioned on the welcome page of her website, but nonetheless it’s still fascinating and worth mention.

In the literary world too, Mehitobel carries impressive credit to her name. Of course, she’s one of four exceptional talents handpicked by John Everson for the hauntingly beautiful collection of short stories, Sins of the Sirens. Just like her cohorts Loren Rhoads, Maria Alexander, and Christa Faust (who will be featured tomorrow), Mehitobel can’t be classified simply as a horror author. Well, I guess you could classify her anyway you want, but it wouldn’t be right because she exhibits skill beyond just the ability to elicit fear. She cuts to the bone, digs in deep for that which we want no one to find; our dirty secrets and haunted desires.

Mehitobel also worked alongside Sirens Loren Rhoads and Maria Wilson at Gothic.net where she acted as editor and book reviewer. Her editing at the webzine garnered a Bram Stoker Award nomination in Superior Achievement in 2000. She also has a non-fiction story in Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues called “Thanksgiving at Bels,” which collected some of Loren Rhoads’ favorite true tales from the Morbid Curiosity magazine’s 10-year run.

Moving onto her fiction you’ll find almost all her work is included in several editions of Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. I will have to seek these stories out because now I have an itch that can’t be scratched and it’s name be Mehitobel!

From what I can tell, Mehitobel’s first story, “Heavy Hands,” is a Sins exclusive, so you better pick up a copy here (or here) if you want to read it. The story follows a quirky, isolated young fellow, Jason, who works a tedious day job, enjoys periodic smoke breaks with his only friend Gemma, and contemplates maybe one day having a barbeque. Gemma, an outspoken, cursing sailor of a woman, is the yin to David’s yang (or is she the yang?). Gemma does her best to rip Jason from his shell like a newborn baby from its mother’s womb (Gemma was never one for subtlety), but he’s struggling with more than social awkwardness and a lonely disposition. Jason is accompanied, every so often, by phantom hands. At first, it’s a light caress that wakes him from his slumber, another time a more intrusive squeeze of the shoulder. Until the climax of the story, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. But this isn’t a fairy tale and there is no happy ending (actually, there is one, but you’ll have to read “Heavy Hands” to find out what it is). You remember how those Tales from the Crypt shows where our protagonist would discover or acquire something that seemed positive, but it would end up being a terrible curse? That’s “Heavy Hands.” A Tales from the Crypt story, a right gone wrong. Happiness almost within reach only to be thwarted by a darker fate in the end.

Mehitobel’s second entry is a spine-chilling, disturbing lil’ piece called “Close.” We’re introduced to a creepy bastard Thad who has a strange sexual obsession. He’s a voyeur that likes to feel and hear, not necessarily see. He’s addicted to eavesdropping on couples in the hotel room above him, listening to “heavy breaths laced with groans, as if her voice would never breathe silently again.” As the title suggests, Thad can’t get close enough. His obsession overpowers any logical thought as he progresses toward the ultimate satisfaction, the climax. When listening from the room below isn’t enough, he fashions a hiding place to get as close as possible to the couple.

“Then new ideas occurred to him. He brought foam, pillows, and sleeping bags, and he built a little berth beneath the bed, to raise him closer to the box spring. He wrapped it in a black cotton flat sheet, one he’d washed well to remove any sheen, and tucked the matching fitted sheet alongside it, to bag himself, to darken himself, to join with the blackness under the bed.”

This story is like a home invasion movie set to paper. For a reader who travels often, it will have added significance. “Close” is deeply unsettling and will send shivers down your spine.

The third story is the exciting cat-and-mouse game I mentioned earlier, “The Wild.” We meet my hero, “Cath Catheter, the girl with the iron roar, the monster queen of the death metal scene.” But by the time we find Cath she has regressed into a nervous hermit, relegated mostly to her apartment, office, and fast-food joints, wondering “how long it had been since she’d broken a pool cue over an opponent’s head.” Cath makes a concerted effort to break free from this anti-social slump. She ventures out to a gallery, gets dolled up for Kink Night at a bar, even hangs at a hip coffee shop. Still, something keeps her from connecting with the people around her. Almost everyone, that is except for a mysterious and handsome rockabilly dude. Will this rockabilly hottie finally liberate Cath? You’ll have to read to find out! I can tell you this isn’t a love story and there’s an unexpected twist at the end I’m dying to tell you about. It’s requiring a great amount of restraint on my part not to spoil it for you! So please, for my sake, just read it!

“The Wild” is juxtaposed dramatically by Mehitobel’s closing story, the terribly heartbreaking “Parting Jane,” about a young girl who is prisoner of a hospital. The drastically different tone of the preceding story makes Mehitobel’s finale especially jarring to the system. This story is all dark. There is no humorous undertone or flirtatious prose, just institutionalized childhood innocence, pain, anguish, and abandonment. Written in first person narration, “Parting Jane” is told though the diary entries of Jane, who is nine years old when the story opens. Her only outlet, her only freedom is her diary. As the story progresses we find out why Jane is hospitalized and it’s more frightening than any cancer, more horrific than any disease, and just plain sad.

To say much more than that does the story a great injustice. That’s really the case with all the stories in this collection. In fact, I think I’ve said too much already. Like Gemma from “Heavy Hands,” I was never really one for subtly.

Visit Mehitobel “Bel” Wilson’s website and pick up a copy of Sins of the Sirens: Fourteen Tales of Dark Desire here or here. Worth every damned penny!

Ladies of Sins of the Sirens: Feature & Interview with Maria Alexander

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.

I would love to share one of the more provocative entries, but instead I’ll just give you a little taste.

From “Pinned:”

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.

Delve into the intoxicating world of Maria Alexander via her website, keep tabs on her through Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

Now, I’ll let Maria Alexander speak for herself. On to the interview!

DT: How were you approached to contribute to SINS OF THE SIRENS? Did you know who else would be contributing to the anthology?

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!

Ladies of Sins of the Sirens: Interview with Loren Rhoads

Today’s Siren, the first included in the Dark Arts Books anthology Sins of the Sirens (which you can buy here or here), is Loren Rhoads, a morbidly curious cemetery dweller who writes a wide range of weird fiction. She created and edited the magazine Morbid Curiosity for 10 years which was dedicated to her strange fascinations. You can find her favorite articles collected in the anthology Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues. Oh, and just a heads up, these are not tales of fiction, these are all true stories of the shocking and bizarre from everyday, regular people.

Rhoads’ fiction often crosses genres. As she mentions in her interview, “I don’t see boundaries, really.  The novel I just finished is a Hong Kong-style kung-fu revenge space opera with a Hammer Horror villain.” Did you hear that!? A Hong King-style kung-fu revenge space opera! With a Hammer Horror villain!? Ihaveto read this!

Sins of the Sirens offers a nice sampling of her varied style, but it wasn’t until I had a chance to probe the mind of Rhoads that I got a real sense for how many layers there are to peel away. For example, I knew she penned titillating erotic tales, but I had no idea that she’d written gay vampire porn! And then of course, there is the Hong Kong-style kung-fu revenge space opera! My head is still spinning.

On to Sins

Rhoads kicks the door off the hinges with the opening story for Sins, “The Angel’s Lair.” This story introduces us to the naughty seductress from the depths of hell, Lorelei, who has her sights set on a vulnerable Angel trapped in the mortal world, Azaziel. Consider them the ultimate star-crossed lovers except their love is really a strange sadomasochistic ritual between one representative from the dark underworld and another from the light of God. Despite the religious basis for the story, it is rich with heaving bosom, hot breath, and sexual tension you can slice like a nice piece of apple pie.

She wanted to wash his deep-set green eyes with her tongue. She wanted to kiss him until she tasted bruises.

That’s just a little teaser of what you can expect. If I was held at gunpoint and forced to pick a favorite among Rhoads’ four stories, this would be it. Lorelei is mesmerizing and oozes sex from the pages of Sin. You’ll be addicted to Lorelei as I was. Luckily, you can meet her again in the short story “Never Bargained for You” in the Demon Lovers: A Succubus and Incubus Anthology to get your fix. Pick that up here.

“The Angel’s Lair” is followed by an equally erotic tale, this time grounded in the earthly realm, “Still Life With Broken Glass.” Sherry’s relationship with an elitist grad student may be fizzling out, but an encounter with photographer Lily ignites her sexual flame anew. Will Sherry be repulsed by Lily’s morbid fascinations or will she succumb to them? This story doesn’t tease; Rhoads goes all the way with this one! There is a very graphic girl-on-girl scene that made even this pervert blush!

From “Still Life With Broken Glass:”

The expedition reminded me of the beginning of Blue Velvet.
While I wasn’t sure I wanted to see anything like that in real life, I didn’t have anything better to do.

Rhoads dials down the sexual tension in the next tale “Sound of Impact,” which follows an unfaithful couples’ (presumably) last tryst. Instead of a sexual romp, free from the danger of discovery by their significant others, they wander the Griffith Observatory marveling at the sights, our narrator meditating on her lengthy relationship with David and the changes it’s underwent. I had to go back and re-read this story after Rhoads revealed the influence of it, so I’ll let her do the talking. I would’ve never guessed on the impetus of the story!

Rhoads’ finale, “Last-Born,” takes us back to where we started – supernatural fantasy. I categorize the story as supernatural fantasy for simplicity’s sake, but Rhoads stories really take on a genre-defying life of their own. In “Last-Born,” we meet a sweet witch Alondra, whom Rhoads notes as one of her favorite characters. Alondra faces a deadly battle with the father of her child, the evil and cruel Elijah, while drawn to the warm embrace of another lover, Simon. Alondra will evoke the spirits of the dead to beat Elijah and save herself. This is a really dark, terrifying story. I consider this the closest to horror in the bunch with seriously frightening imagery and buckets o’ blood… or at least a bathtub full.

From “Last-Born:”

“What makes you think he’ll do his dirty work in person?”
Alondra pulled the crystal vial up out of the neckline of her nightgown and stretched the chain enough to lay the tiny heart in Marie’s hand. “He’ll want this.”

Rhoads doesn’t ease the reader into Sins of the Sirens. Instead she turns the heat all the way up to an unbearable swelter.

Visit Rhoads’ website, stalk her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

Actually, before you do that, check out the review below!

I was thrilled to learn more about Miss Rhoads. She offers great insight into the influence for her stories, in particular for Sins, and her non-literary interests as well. Enjoy!

 

DT: How were you approached to contribute to SINS OF THE SIRENS? Did you know who else would be contributing to the anthology?

RHOADS: During the World Horror Convention in San Francisco, John Everson took me out for a drink in the Tenderloin and asked if I’d be part of a four-woman anthology for Dark Arts.  Many years earlier, he’d read “The Angel’s Lair” in the slush pile for Dark Regions and, while he couldn’t sell his bosses on the story then, it always stuck in his mind.  In fact, he’d tracked me down at my first World Horror Convention ever — in Denver — to tell me how much he’d liked the story.  So my character Lorelei is the reason that John and I got to be friends.

In San Francisco, he honored me by asking me first – of all the women he could have chosen – to be in the book.  He tossed out a couple of other names, some of whom didn’t end up in Sirens, but he also mentioned Maria Alexander and Mehitobel Wilson, both of whom I knew from working at Gothic.Net back in the day.

DT: Each story included in this anthology is vastly different from the other. “The Angel’s Lair” is supernatural fantasy; “Sound of Impact” is a realistic tale of clandestine lovers; “Still Life With Broken Glass” is also realistic, a tale of sexual perversions and morbid curiosities; and finally “Last-Born” goes back to the style of your first entry – supernatural fantasy. How did you decide which stories to include? What was the inspiration behind each? And why do these fit with the theme of SINS OF THE SIRENS?

RHOADS: Actually, I gave John a bunch of stories and he made the final selection.  He wanted a balance of two that were previously published and two that would be original to the anthology.  Of the stories he didn’t choose, one of them was gay vampire porn, initially published in City Slab, and one was lesbian horror that will probably never be published, since it’s too far out there. It’s erotica, but the narrator is very young.

In terms of the stories that made the cut, “The Angel’s Lair” was written as a serial via emails to a friend, who lived in LA and continues to be obsessed by devil girls.  I wanted to write about a party girl who walks into something far beyond her ken and knocks the universe on its ass.

“Sound of Impact” spun out of an essay I was writing about the old displays at the Griffith Observatory.  I was, shall we say, enhanced during my visit there and was quite shocked by the pictures sent up on the Voyager spacecraft.  How would aliens make any sense of our genitals or the image of a human giving live birth?  When I converted the essay to fiction, I didn’t know how it would end, but a friend of mine really did joke about planting a bomb in my luggage at the Burbank Airport.  Luckily, that was pre-9/11.

“Still Life with Broken Glass” came from my years living in Ann Arbor and roaming around late at night.  I worked in the English Department and spent a lot of time amused by the grandiose schemes for getting published and becoming famous that the students and professors engaged in.

I thought the story would never see print.  Originally, the characters were male, but I had one magazine tell me that they would publish it only if I made them straight, rather than gay.  Eventually, I pitched it to Thomas Roche for the NOIROTICA series with the two female main characters, since he said he never got enough lesbian stories.  He accepted it right away, but that book still hasn’t come out.  The story won the fiction contest at one of the World Horror Conventions.  Eventually, it was published in Cemetery Dance.

“Last-Born” features my favorite character, Alondra DeCourval.  Her adventures have appeared in Not One of Us, Wily Writers, and will be coming soon in the next issue of Instant City as well as in THE HAUNTED MANSION PROJECT from Damnation Press. Alondra stories always spin from their setting.  In this case, it was New Orleans, where I had some dear friends living at the time.  They introduced me to several voodoo practitioners and led me around the Bywater and I got caught in a New Orleans downpour.  So the story was born.

DT: Lorelei is the main seductress in “The Angel’s Lair,” but just

recently made a comeback in the DEMON LOVERS anthology, in the short story “Never Bargained for You.” Can you give us some background on Lorelei? How did she come to be, and why were you inspired to bring her back? (we are grateful you did, by the way!)

RHOADS: I’m glad you liked “Never Bargained for You”!  I’m really proud of how that story turned out.  It was written specifically for the Demon Lovers book after the editor decided she wanted to put together a succubus collection – and I had to be in it.  I was so flattered that I had to write something special for her.  I’m looking forward to reading it aloud for the first time at the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake in March.

I had a friend in college who was jaw-droppingly beautiful.  When she walked into a room, conversation stopped.  She also happened to be amazingly fun.  She had no sense of where her limits were – or should be – and every moment you spent with her was dangerous and exciting and sexy as hell.  Lorelei was inspired by her.

DT: “Sound of Impact” was set in Los Feliz like fellow SINS OF THE SIRENS author Maria Alexander’s “The Last Word.” Did you realize your stories shared that connection? Are you also a California native?

RHOADS: No, having the stories set in the same neighborhood was a complete surprise.  I’m originally from Michigan and live in San Francisco, but for several years, I spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, collaborating on a novel inspired by “The Angel’s Lair.”  Someday I may even find a publisher for it.

DT: You were the editor for Morbid Curiosity for 10 years. Can you tell us about the non-fiction publication? How did you and the other contributors find these morbid stories? What’s the craziest thing you ever came across?

RHOADS: Morbid Curiosity was designed as a way for me to publish confessions from strangers.  A lot of them ended up being friends, and appearing in issue after issue, but that hadn’t been my intent going in.

One of my favorite things about publishing the magazine was hosting the live events, where contributors got up to read their confessions in public.  Those often inspired audience members to submit their own experiences.

For a while I hosted open mics, too, inviting people to get up and tell their stories live without notes.  That’s how I met Brian Keene, Rain Graves, Maria Alexander, Simon Wood, Mehitobel Wilson, Christa Faust… all sorts of wonderful people.

One of the stories in the magazine (reprinted in MORBID CURIOSITY CURES THE BLUES) was about assisting the suicide of a friend dying of AIDS.  It’s clear in the story that the dying man had no chance of recovery, that he was grateful to have his friends end his suffering.  Still, assisted suicide is legally murder.  Even without a body, and no evidence other than this confession, there’s still no statute of limitations on murder.  I called the Hemlock Society for their advice about publishing the original piece; Scribner’s lawyers went over it before the book went to press.  I read it one night on the book tour, which was intense.

DT: There are only 10 issues of Morbid Curiosity. Was it always the intention to do a run of just 10 or did other circumstances end the publication?

No, 10 just seemed like a good number to go out on.  Each issue took about a year of my life and I wanted to do more of my own writing.

DT: You have an obsession with graveyards and blog about your travels at Cemeterytravel.com. You’re also a member of the association for Gravestone Studies. Can you tell us what fascinates you about cemeteries and how this interest started?

RHOADS: I grew up down the road from the graveyard where my family is buried, so I felt a connection to their stones.  During the First Gulf War, I ended up in London by accident.  I bought a copy of an amazingly beautiful book of cemetery photos called HIGHGATE CEMETERY: VICTORIAN VALHALLA, which inspired me to poke around this wildly overgrown sculpture garden full of broken angels.  That started my obsession.

DT: How many cemeteries / graveyards have you visited over the years?

RHOADS: Literally hundreds.  Whenever I travel, I ask around about what local cemeteries are worth visiting.  Last November, when I went to Ohio while my dad had heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, I took an afternoon to explore Lake View Cemetery.  I’ve been to Hiroshima’s Peace Park and the Bone Chapel at Kutna Hora, graveyards in Rome, Venice, Florence, and Pompeii, cemeteries in Paris and Prague, and – one year – my husband and I rented a car on the East Coast to visit 17 cemeteries in 10 days.  There’s still so much more I want to see!

DT: Do you have a favorite? If so, which one (or two) and why?

RHOADS: That’s a hard question.  Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts may be the most beautiful cemetery I’ve ever visited, but I love Cypress Lawn in Colma, California, too.  When they asked me to come talk about cemetery travel this coming April, it was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

DT: Back to your fiction. You write in varying styles and the stories in SINS OF THE SIRENS are a good sampling of that diversity. Between erotica, paranormal fantasy, and science fiction, is there a genre in particular you favor most?

RHOADS: I don’t see boundaries, really.  The novel I just finished is a Hong Kong-style kung-fu revenge space opera with a Hammer Horror villain.  It’s science fiction, because there are spaceships, but there are mad scientists and monsters and lots of sex.  I wish other writers would mix it up more.

DT: I noticed on your website that you don’t mention horror as a

genre you write. Of course, I consider “horror” to be a pretty broad term that is often an umbrella for other subgenres. Do you consider some of your writing straight horror? Why or why not?

RHOADS: I think both “Sound of Impact” and “Still Life with Broken Glass” are as close to pure horror as I’ve written.  I guess it depends how you define horror.  I’m only tangentially interested in the “real world” as a setting, probably because I read so much nonfiction and hang out in so many graveyards.  When I read – and write – for pleasure, I want something that takes me away from the mundane.  I decided pretty early on that killing someone was a cheap way to add tension to a story.

I’m not sure if that answers your question.

DT: Maniac.com recently posted (I think just before the start of Women in Horror month) a list of the Top 20 Greatest Horror Writers of All-Time, but they didn’t include any female writers. Not even an honorable mention! I’ve been asking all the women I’ve had the opportunity to speak with about their thoughts. What do you think about lists like this that so casually omit female writers?

RHOADS: A lack of imagination.

One of the best times I’ve ever had at a convention was when the Persephone Writers put on a game show.  Two contestants volunteered to guess if a piece read by the female members of Persephone had been written by a woman or a man.  In cases when the contestants did not know the work, they could not guess.  One of the contestants was Gary Braunbeck.

The piece I read was an excerpt from Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” which inspired Hitchcock’s movie.  It’s harrowing.  The contestants guessed Brian Keene had written it.

DT: To counter that, who are your favorite female genre writers currently? Not necessarily straight horror, but even paranormal fantasy, sci-fi, supernatural thrillers, or whatever…

RHOADS: Gemma Files is number one on my list.  I adore Marie Rutkoski’s YA trilogy.  Maria Alexander’s stories are sexy as hell.  Dana Fredsti has a great sense of humor.  Lisa Morton’s Castle of Los Angeles is really fun.

DT: What do you have coming up that fans will be excited about?

What’s next for Loren Rhoads?

RHOADS: I’m really looking forward to the publication of THE HAUNTED MANSION PROJECT, which I hope will be available by the end of March.  It’s an anthology put together by a gang of horror writers who attended the first writing retreat at a haunted house in Northern California.  Yvonne Navarro is in the book, along with Weston Ochse, S. G. Brown, Sephera Giron, Eunice Magill, and a host of others.  I’ve got an Alondra story in it, as well as the true story of my encounter with the ghost.

I’m working hard to proofread the manuscript for Wish You Were Here, a collection of my cemetery travel essays that were published on Gothic.Net, Morbid Outlook, Morbid Curiosity, TRAVELERS’ TALES, and a bunch of other places.  That book should also be out late next month.

My chapbook Ashes & Rust is now an ebook for the first time.  It collects four horror/science fiction stories about sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and apocalypse.

Oh, and I have two novels at my agent’s now.  Fingers crossed on those.

People can check up on me at http://www.lorenrhoads.com.

DT: Last one… Vincent Price has just invited you to the House on Haunted Hill and wants you to pick the four other guests. Who do you pick, dead or alive, and why?

I’d want to go with my Haunted Mansion companions.  I’ve already survived a weekend in an old, dark house with them – and I know, among that crowd, I’m the Final Girl.  It shouldn’t be that hard to talk them into it.

Women in Horror Month: An Interlude

In my Welcome to Women in Horror Month post at the beginning of February, I made the comment that this is a time to come together as brothers and sisters in blood and guts, so to speak. Some people back the celebration 100%, and some people are publicly against it, men and women on both sides. And that’s OK.

We decided as a team that it’s important to us. I decided as a woman who had, until very recently, woefully neglected the contributions of my sisters in the literary world that this month was important to me personally.

Whether or not someone else chooses to celebrate is not so much a concern to me as whether people give credit where it is due. I had that brief selfish twinge of “why aren’t they into the same thing I’m into!?” Maybe I was looking for validation in the shared support of people I admire and respect. But the truth is I don’t need to be validated.

I’m proud of what we’ve done at Dreadful Tales so far and look forward to the rest of our contributions to the literary community. I’ve got a laundry list of female writers – not just horror authors – poets, artists, publishers, and beyond to check out. I’ve grown, and learned new things about myself as a reader and woman.

Of course, none of that would be possible without my partners in crime, Colum, Pat, and Jason.  I’ve expressed my gratitude to Colum in particular before because without him I wouldn’t be writing this right now. For whatever reason, Colum recognized an untapped creative energy within me anxious to be set free and really encouraged me to let it out.

I also owe much to members in the horror community, many of them men, for recommending great female talents, and supporting our artistic endeavors. We (women) can’t do this alone.

You may be wondering, “what the hell is your point!?” Sorry, I’m getting to it. My point is that you can’t really celebrate Women in Horror without giving credit to the men who champion our artistic endeavors.

For example, I’ve mentioned Greg Lamberson a couple times this month for introducing me to exceptional women in the horror literature world. I could dedicate a couple shelves to his recommendations alone.

But today, I want to give a shout out to John Everson and in particular the brilliant collection of short stories from his own Dark Arts Books titled Sins of the Sirens: Fourteen Tales of Dark Desire, which features four extremely talented, fearless, balls-to-the-walls writers. These writers grab on with red lacquered nails, razor sharp, and refuse to let go without taking ripped bits of flesh with them. And I discovered each one of these authors – Loren Rhoads, Maria Alexander (nominated for a 2011 Bram Stoker Award!), Mehitobel Wilson, and Christa Faust – for the first time in this anthology.

Thank you, John!

Everson so aptly describes the writers of Sins of the Sirens in his introduction to the collection:

They’re all very different writers, yet they each spin tales of power, and obsession, and often deadly seduction. That which we desire makes us… vulnerable. The ability to unveil vulnerability is the greatest siren weapon – in life, and in fiction.

 This week, we celebrate that wonderful ability which is contained so perfectly in this collection through a four day series of mini-reviews and a couple interviews with the Ladies of Sins of the Sirens!

Pictured above: Loren Rhoads, Christa Faust, Maria Alexander. Missing: Mehitobel Wilson (but we will find her!)

Stay tuned for the first lady of Sins of the Sirens, Loren Rhoads, later today!

-Meli

Fresh Face: Feature & Interview with Joan Frances Turner, the New Voice in Zombie Fiction and Beyooooond!

Most authors I’ve discovered, including those featured for Women in Horror Month, were introduced to me by someone else, whether an author or fellow reader urging “you must read this” or praising the talents of a yet unknown (to me) writer of the perverse, weird, scary, and subversive. I’m proud to say that I found today’s featured femme, Joan Frances Turner, all on my own while browsing bookshelves on an book hunting excursion a couple years ago. The cover design of her debut zombie novel Dust immediately caught my eye, so I poked about a little further and discovered that the author lives in my home state of Indiana, which she also chose for the setting of her book.

I was already sold on a zombie story set in Indiana, but it was the opening line that gave me that rush you get when you realize you’ve stumbled upon braaaaaaiins… Ahem, excuse me… I mean, something truly unique and exciting:

My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.

How’s that for an introduction?

I tore into Dust like a newly turned corpse and set off on a weird trip with an even weirder zombie gang, the Fly-by-Nights. Dust is a fresh take on an old trope with a POV from the often neglected zombies. Even though the perspective is unique, Turner stays true to the good ol’ fashioned George Romero zombies. They shuffle, they shamble, they moan and groan, and fall apart. Just like a rotting corpse should.

It wasn’t until the mid-90s when Turner first saw the movie that defined the genre, Night of the Living Dead (1968), so she wasn’t corrupted by the endless incarnations of Romero’s walking dead (horse-riding zombies, talking zombies, the fast rage-virus-zombie that isn’t really a zombie at all but still owes as much to the real thing). Her untainted viewpoint gives the novel a nice innocent remember-when-zombies-just-shuffled-around-eating-brains feel. That’s not to say that diehard zombie aficionados don’t pen great zombie fiction because we all know that’s not the case (think Jonathon Maberry or David Moody). But for this reader it was a refreshing change of pace to read a tale of the undead from less of a fangirl perspective.

I read up on Miss Turner as much as possible after reading Dust and found out about some of her influences, but it was especially gratifying to have the chance to ask the author herself in an interview during our continued celebration of Women in Horror Month at Dreadful Tales.

I found out that we have more in common than just Indiana. She’s also a fan of Tuxedomoon, loves many of the same horror films I do, and her political leanings are in line with my own. Those commonalities don’t influence whether or not I like an author, but I have to admit there is a surge of excitement to know we connect on more than my love for their stories. It’s cool to know that if I meet Turner in person we could talk about more than the Resurgam trilogy. We could swap CDs, talk about our favorite foreign horror films, the best NW Indiana haunts, Richard Dawkins… ok, I’m getting a ahead of myself a bit.

First things first, I had a chance to ask Turner all kindsa questions about the influence for her books, the sequel to Dust, and the final book in the series, Grave, and also what’s next for the author. You’ll find that Turner goes the extra mile in her responses to my sometimes basic questions to give her readers and future fans an intimate glimpse into what makes her tick (Pst, it’s not braaaaaaains!). I hope you enjoy her banter as much as I do!

 

DT: DUST was your first published novel. What were you doing before you decided to start writing seriously and what gave you the kick in the butt to do it? You dedicate DUST to your mother. Was she a big inspiration?

TURNER: Pre-Dust I was (and still am) a lawyer who in her spare time scribbled random bits and pieces of stories but never finished them, or put them together into a coherent whole, or ever tried to get them published–but still talked incessantly about how “someday,” sometime, I “was going to be” a writer.  Around my thirtieth birthday or so my mother finally said to me flat out, “You know, if you’re going to be a writer, you actually have to BE A WRITER!”, and I was sufficiently chastened to focus my energies, scribble down the two pages of notes that ultimately became a 750-page first draft and start the long, stubborn process of rewriting, editing, rewriting again, finding an agent (after about eighty-two attempts) and, ultimately, finding a publisher.  So I really had to dedicate the book to my mother:  Not only was she an inspiration, she was also my starting motor and the person most stubbornly convinced that if I wanted it that badly, I really could do it.

DT: There were three things that initially sold me on DUST that I would like to ask about. First, I loved the cover! The decaying, shimmering, solitary leaf
against the matte charcoal grey immediately caught my eye. Did you
have any input in the cover design?

TURNER: Even well-established writers almost never have any control over their cover design, and I didn’t have any over mine.  I was very fortunate, though:  I liked it a lot too, and felt like it captured the mood of the book particularly well without spelling it all out in the visuals.  (I keep waiting for the “Oh, dear God no, that CAN’T be my book cover!” experience I keep being told all authors suffer through, but thus far I’ve been extremely lucky and liked them all.)

DT: I’m a Hoosier from Indianapolis, so when I discovered DUST was set in the Calumet region of Indiana I was pretty excited. You don’t come across many horror books set in Indiana. Why did you decide on that setting?

TURNER: Not only don’t you come across many horror books set in Indiana, you don’t come across many books at all set in Indiana, and almost none set in this particular part of the state:  Jean Shepherd (whom I love) is about the extent of the Calumet region’s presence on the literary map.  Besides it being near-virgin territory it’s also the part of the world I know best, having grown up here–I don’t believe in writing about places I haven’t actually lived in, if only because I need to be there physically to be able to bring them to life on paper–and has enough geographical variety of city, suburb, farm, factory, mill, forest and beach to make “shooting on location” lively and interesting.  Also, the city of Gary gets such a barrage of contempt from outsiders that I wanted to highlight some of its lesser-known beauties, like the neighborhoods that are part and parcel of the Indiana Dunes (the book’s “Prairie Beach” is a thinly disguised version of the Miller Beach and Marquette Park Beach areas), and give them their own fictionalized life and spirit.

DT: The opening line, “My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.” made me laugh hysterically and all the bookstore browsers gave me concerned looks. You let the reader know right out the gate that you’re going to have a sense of humor about the story. Between the cover (I’m a sucker for a good cover) and the setting, I already knew I had to have this book, but that opening line made me feel really confident about my choice. Was it crucial for you to make sure that first line really grabbed readers? What else did you want to establish for DUST with it?

TURNER: The late comic writer Michael O’Donoghue had a famous National Lampoon spoof, “How To Write Good,” which skewers the typical sort of advice handed out to fledgling authors and is one of my favorite things ever.  One of his narrator’s bits of incompetent advice is that every book or story needs a “grabber,” a first line that compels the reader to keep reading; his examples of exemplary grabbers include “Sylvia lay sick among the silverware” and “Even if I did love you, Alex, my father would never let me marry an alligator.”  I was nervous about exactly how to begin my book, so after much hemming and hawing I thought–purely to amuse myself–“I’m going to write a grabber that would make Michael O’Donoghue proud!”  (Also as I’m left-handed myself, my protagonist was destined to be a southpaw.)  Mostly what I wanted to establish is that this was a book where dramatic bodily alterations happened as a matter of course and the characters were not going to waste time, no pun intended, falling to pieces over it; shit happens, you lose an arm, you keep right on going.  That can be either comic or tragic depending on the context, and in Dust it ends up being both.

DT: DUST follows the young spit-fire zombie, Jessie, along with her gang the Fly-by-Nights. They have many trials and tribulations as shuffling, rotting undead throughout the story, but there is still a fun B-movie sensibility to it. Can you tell us about the second book, FRAIL, and how it is similar to DUST or different?

TURNER: I fondly think of Dust as my “B-movie on paper”–those shout-outs to Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls probably tipped everyone off–so thanks for proving me right.  🙂  Frail picks up several months after the end of Dust, its perspective switching from the undead to living human beings, but the question of what humanity actually is anymore continues to grow more complicated by the minute.  (A reviewer called Frail a “post-zombie” book and while I can’t explain that without giving away Dust’s ending, it’s entirely correct.) Frail’s protagonist, Amy, has done a rather terrible thing which literally and figuratively haunts her throughout the book, and her own personal day of reckoning regarding that ends up being quite important for the future of, well, much of the rest of humanity–if Amy really is the human being she thinks she is.  As noted, that’s open to question.

DT: Your website says you’re currently working on the last book in the “Resurgam Trilogy,” tentatively titled GRAVE. How will this last book differ from the first two in the series? Can you reveal any details about the final entry?

TURNER: Grave will unite several characters from both Dust and Frail–many of whom had been going along happily ignorant of each others’ existences–in an existential crisis of vast and potentially world-altering dimensions.  There’s also someone coming to the most important decision of not only their own life but most of humanity’s collective life, and some very bittersweet goodbyes.  And anything else I might say about it really wouldn’t make any sense at all unless you’ve read both Dust and Frail, so hurry and prepare well in advance.

DT: What drew you to horror, and zombie fiction in particular?

TURNER: I don’t feel drawn to (or away from) either horror in general or zombies in particular; this is just the story I had in my head and really wanted to tell, and this is the means by which I did it. I don’t feel affiliated with (or against) any particular genre, nor do I think it’s productive to go, “Well, I certainly don’t go around writing that sort of thing” because that guarantees you’ll end up surprising yourself.  And also because it makes you sound thoroughly obnoxious.

DT: What are your non-horror influences? What about non-literary influences?

TURNER: Non-horror influences:  Patricia Highsmith, Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, Monika Fagerholm, Colette, Isak Dinesen, Damon Runyon, John Dos Passos, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Russell Hoban, Ralph Ellison, Anthony Powell, Thomas Mann, Hilary Mantel.  Non-literary influences:  The original Night of the Living Dead (as noted), the original Carnival of Souls, the “Thriller” video, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the music of Comus, Magnet (The Wicker Man house band), Agalloch, Nick Cave, Peter Brotzmann, Tuxedomoon, Pink Floyd and The The.

DT: After the “Resurgam Trilogy,” what’s next for Joan Frances Turner?
Do you already have your next book planned? Will it be horror?

TURNER: After Grave is completed Joan will be retiring to the countryside for a long vacation while she works out a few ideas for her next book, which won’t involve zombies but does seem to promise a protagonist who can walk between life and death and back again whenever they see fit.  Like many good fantasy and horror protagonists Joan also has a literary doppelganger, who roams the writing world under another name and may be trying her own, separate hand at realistic fiction in the future.

DT: It wasn’t until the mid-90s when you first discovered George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead –and we’re so happy you finally did! Any other new discoveries in horror film recently that have inspired you?

TURNER: This is where I have to admit that despite what all that enthusiastically described decomposition might suggest, I’m an extremely squeamish reader and viewer.  Nonetheless, here are some favorites both old and new:

Halloween (the original version).  This was my first horror movie, watched when I was far too young to know what I was getting myself into (though by modern-day horror standards it’s now quite tame), so it has to head the list.

The Shining.  This may not be a very original choice, but it’s still the most frightening movie I’ve ever seen right from the opening credits.  (I also have a huge soft spot for the miniseries version, but having been toned down for network television that one’s suspenseful instead of horrific.)

A Tale of Two Sisters.  The second most frightening movie I’ve ever seen and also so terribly, overpoweringly sad.

Repulsion.  A beautiful young woman falls apart by slow, psychotically hallucinatory degrees and it’s the more frightening because we never really understand why. Black Swan is Repulsion: The Ballet.

Let the Right One In (original version), Habit and The Addiction.  I normally don’t find vampires very interesting but these three movies are strong exceptions.

Man Bites Dog.  Dark satire of a serial killer and the hapless, cannon-fodder film crew documenting and glamorizing all his horrible exploits.  It made me laugh so hard I felt guilty afterward.

Baxter, a French film from the late 1980s about a bull terrier whose succession of owners all seem to have a strange habit of suddenly dying.  If you’re envisioning Cujo this isn’t it, there’s actually no blood and no gore and yet the movie, and its title pet, are somehow that much more frightening because of it.

Hellraiser (the first one).  Honestly it’s a richly satisfying old-fashioned morality tale with some extreme BDSM imagery and refugee Mugwumps from Naked Lunch thrown in, and that’s a good evening out.

Suspiria.  I have to look away at certain key moments (mostly the ones involving that bloodthirsty seeing-eye dog) but this was a huge influence on Dust, by which I mean I saw the infamous attic-full-of-maggots scene and thought immediately, “I want something like that in my book!”, which is why a major character in Dust is literally a walking maggot hatchery.  The soundtrack is also amazing.

The Wicker Man (the original version, not that Nicolas Cage………thing).  It’s one of my favorite fever dreams.

Festen.  This is technically not a horror movie at all, but rather the story of horrific acts inflicted on children and their attempts, as adults, to break through a solid wall of family denial.  No blood, no gore, deeply unsettling and disturbing.

DT: I recently came across a Top 20 Greatest Horror Writer of All-Time list on Mania.com. 20 writers, not one single woman! Not even an honorable mention! As a writer, reader, and woman, what do you think about lists like this that so casually omit female authors?

TURNER: I think that that list is depressingly commensurate with “greatest writers” lists in every genre from science fiction to literary realism to poetry to drama, which more often than not have, at best, one or two grudging mentions of female authors against dozens of men and if anyone objects, the accusations of “You just want a politically correct quota system!” start flying around like trailer homes in a tornado.  On the other hand, anyone who gets their reading list from any random stranger’s pet favorites, mine included, just isn’t trying very hard.  Find your top greatest of all time, and if they happen to be all men–or all women–then that’s how it is, but if you’re automatically excluding “chicks” (or black authors, or gay authors, or any other category) before you start because you think “they can’t/don’t write that stuff,” your list isn’t worth much of anything.

DT: And to counter that list, who are your favorite female horror writers?

TURNER: I’m probably inviting heated debate as to whether they’re “true” horror writers, but: Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter and Joyce Carol Oates.  Gemma Files also writes exceptional stuff.

DT: What are you currently reading?

TURNER: Currently in rotation on the nightstand:

The Lawrenceville Stories, Owen Johnson.  Turn-of-last-century boys’ prep school hijinks and about as far from horror fiction as you can possibly get; the worst that happens is someone getting a backside full of gravel after falling off a roof.

Otherhood: Poems, Reginald Shepherd.  The poems include “Wicker Man Marginalia” and “Hygiene,” a meditation on Jeffrey Dahmer, for any interested horror fans.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Gregor von Rezzori.  Not an actual memoir, but a fictional protagonist meditating on non-supernatural real world horrors.

The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Martha C. Nussbaum.  I don’t have much background in philosophy so this one is slow going, but still very interesting.

La Toile de Charlotte, E.B. White.  I am re-teaching myself the French I forgot after high school and working my way through all the children’s classics as practice.  After this, possibly Le Vent dans les Saules (The Wind in the Willows).
DT: And, last one…

Vincent Price has invited you to the House on Haunted Hill and
wants you to choose the other 4 guests. Who do you pick and why?

TURNER: Keeping in mind that in real life I’d politely tell him there’s some stuff you just don’t do even for the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $10,000:  The current Republican presidential candidates, of whom (as of my writing this) there are conveniently four, because they’d be so busy fighting and backstabbing each other they’d be sitting ducks for the giant vat of acid.  Also, since gay people seem to be among their worst nightmares, I’d scare them so badly just by showing up that I’m good as guaranteed to win.

You can follow Joan Frances Turner at all the usual haunts, Facebook, Twitter, and her author webpage.

The sequel to Dust, Frail, is already out (published appropriately in October 2011) and Turner is hard at work at the final book in the Resurgam trilogy, Grave. I hope to have reviews for both Frail and Grave on Dreadful Tales… sometime! Stay Tuned!

Feature: A Terrifying Beauty – Discussing the Work of Artist Rebekah Joy Plett

One could say virtually anything about a piece of art. The expression of emotion, exploitation of the senses through visual stimuli, the evocation of memory and, more importantly in this situation – fear, have been tinkered with through visual arts since the dawn of time – for lack of a better cliché. People of all standings have opined about it ad nausea:

“A picture is worth a thousand words” – Napoleon Bonaparte

“A picture is a poem without words” – Horace

“All art is but imitation of nature” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

“A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament” – Oscar Wilde

And on and on.

But sometimes art is something more.

Vastly more.

In the case of Rebekah Joy Plett, it might be best for all involved if we *don’t* know what words lay behind these sometimes unsettling images. We can already see the darkness that influences the nature of Plett’s pieces, but to know what influences *the artist* in her pursuit of her creations may be too much for the casual viewer to handle. Her artwork is, in itself, a disturbingly unnatural experience that creeps in just under the skin, but ultimately leaves the viewer thoroughly satisfied.

A beautiful brutality

And as for Wilde’s opinion that unique results are borne of unique temperaments… well… I challenge you to find another artist in this genre with quite the same vision as Plett. There are a few pieces in Plett’s portfolio that don’t demand dissection. The artist’s motivation is readily evidenced, and yet the images retain a mysterious and vague element begging the viewer to delve that little bit deeper into *their own* mind in order to figure out exactly what is going on.

To make a point, we’ll just wait to see how long it takes you to finally see “the whale”.

The Bather

Plett’s output is intricate, harrowing, and oftentimes hits close to home for those of us who remember the innocence of a childhood tinted with the shadow of fearsome fiends.

The mind of a child is one of those places where untold wonders exist completely unhindered by the jaded experience of growing up. It’s there that Plett finds her place, drawing upon the little things that we may not deign to consider as adults.

I envy this artist’s youthful exuberance and appreciation for the finer (and grimier) things in life.

Marjorie Merle and Tex

As was the case in yesterday’s post with Bree Ogden, I came across Plett’s output as a direct result of my love of Crow Toes Quarterly, though it wasn’t until the advent of Underneath The Juniper Tree that I had a chance to fully experience the scope of which Plett’s talent spans.

The first release of UTJT introduced Marjorie Merle and Tex to a readership that combined a healthy mix of middle grade, YA, and grown up readers alike. The stories and art showcased in UTJT speak to all generations of kids on a different level, leaving each person who cracks (or clicks) open an issue, the opportunity to experience it in a different way.

Plett’s involvement as artistic director in the publication brings a different perspective to the process. Her sinister visions drive the eye from one story to the next, and are richly accompanied by the artwork of other talented spirits in the genre, ranging from ghoulish and grotesque to stark and creepy.

Getting back to Plett’s personal portfolio, it’s common to find an commingling of innocent and monstrous images splayed upon the canvas, wood, board, or screen of the artist’s choosing. If you were to take a look at any of Plett’s “works in progress” posts, you’d find that a fair amount of the images go from quietly serene and beautiful to morbid and gruesome, almost as of the natural transition demanded it. In fact, the initial drafts and their finished counterparts are often so close in appearance that any small modification can easily be dismissed. Upon closer inspection, though, the finer details pop up and give credence to the chills the viewer may have experienced but just couldn’t explain away.

My Monster

Plett is a perfect example of the immense grip with which women hold this genre up. Her ability to captivate the viewer and tell an entire story with images is a powerful tool that this genre could not do without. Joining Plett’s pieces with the stories found in UTJT is a sort of wish fulfillment for me. Growing up reading things like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and similar books dedicated to kids like me who dug things darker in fiction, it was disappointing to reach teenage and adulthood and find that feeling drained from horror fiction. Plett and UTJT have resurrected that feeling for me, and will most assuredly bring about the resurgence good quality dark literature to the youth of the genre.

Creative Monster

Plett is a valuable player in the horror genre, in my opinion. It’s her artistic vision that drives UTJT to be the voice of children’s horror fiction, and will ultimately lead the publication towards a bigger audience and the notice it deserves.

You can check out more of Plett’s work at her blog, and at Underneath The Juniper Tree. She’s also on Facebook and Twitter, and can be found haunting other places on the web as well.

C.

Feature: Horror’s Wonder Woman – Super Agent Bree Ogden

I first came across the mad musing of Bree Ogden in the pages of Crow Toes Quarterly – a print and electronic publication designed and dedicated to children’s literature of a darker lean.

Her web presence at that point was almost completely unknown to me, but I eventually found myself becoming more aquainted with her on various social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and the like. She seemed, to me, to be a very vocal proponent of the cause to keep kid lit scary, re-kindling the fire inside my heart for the myriad things that spooked me as a kid.

In my insane hyper-attentive way, I dug a little deeper and discovered that Bree was not only a writer and editor, but that she was also an agent of the macabre. And by that, I don’t mean she’s a vessel by which nefarious things creep about our plain. Well… I do mean that, but I also meant that she’s a literary agent as well.

From Ogden’s “Meet Bree” page at her website:

Bree graduated with her BA in Philosophy from Southern Virginia University where she served as editor-in-chief of the University’s newsmagazine. She was awarded Most Valuable Player and Editor of the Year, as well as SVU’s Pioneer Award, an honor the University awards to two students each year. She then received her MA in Journalism with an emphasis in editing and expository writing at Northeastern University where she worked on both the New England Press Association Bulletin, and also served as the features editor of the premier campus music magazine, Tastemakers Magazine.

Soon after finding out about the publication, Shelagh and I found out that Crow Toes was closing its doors, leaving both Shelagh and myself in the position of trying to find another publication that would cater to both the needs of spooky kids everywhere, and the creepy little demons inside ourselves.

Enter: Underneath The Juniper Tree.

It was only by our involvement in the genre that we found out about this interesting venture. The publication, basically hosted by the young Marjorie Merle and Tex, her charismatic sidekick with an insatiable hunger for toes (whether his preference is for young, old, human, or animal, I’d unknown at this time.)

From UTJT’s “About” page:

My name is Marjorie Merle and on the right is my ever faithful companion Tex. I am Keeper Of The Stories and I will tell you where I found them. My story begins one night when I started up the stairs to the attic to retrieve some candles during the storm; my knees were knocking together, my fingers quivered. Dusty beams of light from the cloud-swept moon leaked into the attic, landing on sheets of paper with spidery writing – but it wasn’t just writing; drawings and photographs littered the floor as well. There were stories of old days, of the future, of the times in between and each had with it a drawing relaying every dreadful and delicious detail into my mind. I drank in the stories greedily with an unquenchable thirst. Now I am sharing them with you, dear reader. Enjoy and remember, don’t get lost. You don’t want to end up underneath the Juniper Tree.

Quickly coming to the conclusion that this was the perfect avenue to direct our young friends and readers toward, Shelagh and I reveled in both the perfect choices of stories and the supremely creepy, yet accessible artistry contained within. This was something we could get behind AND try help promote. Aften all, this life is about the kids, isn’t it?

You couldn’t possibly imagine our excitement when we found out that Bree was one of the people behind it all.

As it turns out, Bree Ogden and Rebekah Joy Plett had joined forces and – from the ashes of what we believe was the best horror-centric children’s publication out there – developed, produced, edited, designed, and utterly ruled over the future of kids horror lit through this new offering to the genre.

Without missing a beat after the demise of CTQ, Ogden surrounded herself with incredible artists and authors and compiled the first incredible issue of Underneath The Juniper Tree. The Table of Contents didn’t read like a “classics” offering either. This was all modern, and all geared towards the youth of today. 77 pages of creeptastic fiction for the monster lovers in all of us. Now 8 lovingly crafted issues in, and it doesn’t look like they’re about to stop any time soon.

While UTJT is a joint venture borne of the mad amalgamation of minds between Ogden and Plett, it’s the former’s position as editor, agent, guru, and creeper that have earned her a profile today.

Working in her daylight hours as a literary agent for D4EO Literary Agency, Ogden combs through YA and middle grade manuscripts in a variety of sub-genres, and has a specific style that she enjoys (like all agents do.) Her lean towards horror literature sits nicely in our little house of horrors, and gives us faith in the fact that there’s someone out there who has the pull to bring the “fear” back to fear street.

A great example of what Ogden is looking for can be found at the D$EO website:

Seeking: Middle grade, Young Adult, New Adult fiction (readership: ages 18-30), Graphic Novels, YA Nonfiction, and Art books

• Email submissions only
• Paste the first five pages of your novel below your query
• No attachments

Bree’s wish list: (don’t limit your queries to these!)
Young Adult:
• Dark (not angst-ridden)
• Realistic
• Psychological horror (with no paranormal elements)
• Hard sci fi. Meaning no fantasy, or magical realism at all
• A Dexter-ish type YA black comedy
• A Roaring Twenties historical for YA
• A manuscript written in the era of Mad Men with panache and style
• A unique and theme-driven art book

Manuscripts I will not look at:

• Paranormal or fantasy (that includes urban fantasy)
• Romance (unless there is a superb dark, psychotic element)
• Magical realism
• World building

Claiming an influence that ranges from Alvin Schwartz and R.L. Stein, and swinging a bag of tricks dripping with grisly gore, we’re sure you can agree with us when we say that, with Ogden at the helm, the kids definitely aren’t gonna be alright… in a good way.

Keep watching the site for a prfile of UTJT, and to listen to a conversation with Ogden and Plett (my computer died and took the audio of that conversation with it.)

I’m proud to call this modern marvel a friend, and regard her as a true Wonder Woman of the genre. It’s not every day that someone with the spunk and ability comes along in the genre championing great quality fiction for the little ghouls and boils.

So, Bree Ogden, Dreadful Tales salute you. You’re a beacon of much needed darkness on an otherwise sparkly scene, and we appreciate the mess of grue you leave in your wake.

You can check out more of Bree Ogden’s work at Underneath The Juniper Tree, D4EO Literary Agency, her blog, and on Facebook and Twitter.

C.