Janine Cross Interviews…Philip Harris!
May 17, 2023
Our new HWA-GV Co-Chair for 2023/24, Phil Harris has a wealth of writing experience under his belt. A speculative fiction author and video game developer, his first publication, Letter From a Victim, appeared in the award winning magazine, Peeping Tom, in 1995. Since then he’s been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Garbled Transmissions, So Long, and Thanks for All The Brains and James Ward Kirk’s Best of Horror 2013. His science fiction novel, Glitch Mitchell and the Unseen Planet, is a homage to the old Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials. You can find free fiction and his blog at his website: solitarymindset.com
To begin our interview, could you tell us a little bit about what drew you to write dark speculative fiction?
I’m going to blame my Generation X background. English bookshops in the 80s still had a real horror section with the likes of Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Shaun Hutson, and Steve Harris (no relation). The 80s also gave us classic horror movies like Hellraiser, The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Re-Animator, The Fly, An American Werewolf in London and countless others, all available from the video rental store down the street.
Even now, the movies, TV and books I pick almost always have a dark edge to them. Add to that the famed GenX self-reliance, (slight) cynicism, my love of 80s/90s goth music and a dark sense of humour and you have all the makings of a writer of dark fiction.
You’re also a video game developer. Are there any parallels that exist between creating a novel and developing a video game?
There are certainly similarities. Video game stories and novels both need strong characters, interesting hooks, the right atmosphere, and perfect pacing to draw people in and keep them interested. I use the same techniques for outlining video game stories and characters as I do for novels.
But from there, things diverge significantly. With a novel I’m focused on telling the story I want to tell in the best way I can. There’ll be editor or early reader feedback but generally I’m in charge. Video games are collaborative. I work with a team of writers, artists and game designers on the story, and everything goes through multiple rounds of feedback that we use to try to find the “right” story for the game.
Video games also take a lot longer than a novel (at least for me). A big video game can take 3-5 years to make compared to six months or so for me to write a polished draft of a novel.
Do you make a conscious effort to include particular material or circumstances in your creative work and if so, what do you want to portray?
It’s not always conscious, but memories play a big part in a lot of my stories. From creatures that can only live if someone remembers them to travelling memory salesmen, I keep drawing on the impact memories have on our lives. And because I write horror, they tend to be memories that haunt or cause pain in some way.
To me, memories are little angels and devils nestled at the back of our brains just waiting to crawl into our conscious thoughts to either delight or torment us. And I can’t be the only one who finds that it’s the devilish memories that are the most persistent. I still remember meaningless little mistakes I made twenty-five years ago, but I can’t recall much from the films I watched at the horror film festival my wife and I attended during our much more recent honeymoon. Even though I know I enjoyed them. One was set on a ski lift… and there were zombies at some point. That was a different film, though, I think.
How does your non-writing life play into your fiction writing and your game development?
Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest are appearing more and more in my writing, in both novels and video games. The book I’m working on at the moment is set in an unnamed city that is closely modelled on Vancouver, and I recently designed a game character with a background that was loosely connected to British Columbia.
Who are some of your favourite characters in horror? Authors you recommend?
I’m going to have to start with Pinhead. The original Hellraiser is one of my favourite movies and it really cemented my love of horror. Pinhead is such an iconic character and has always appealed to me. And I love Clive Barker’s writing. More recently, I really enjoyed Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lector in the Hannibal TV series. In fact the whole cast was fantastic. The writing on that show is amazing and I’m still sad it’s ended.
My go-to author recommendation is Caitlin R. Kiernan. She writes amazing, poetic dark fantasy and science fiction that is so good it almost makes me want to quit writing. My favourites of her novels are Murder of Angels and Daughter of Hounds, but she’s also written a huge number of great short stories. They can be tricky to get hold of, but Subterranean Press has put out several collections.
Cassandra Khaw is another fantastic author. Their haunted house novella, Nothing But Blackened Teeth, was a British Fantasy, World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson and Bram Stoker Award finalist but they’ve also written a lot of great short stories and have a collection out called Breakable Things. Oh, and they also write video games.
What’s one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Don’t ignore storytelling in video games. There are a lot of video games out there that tell really interesting stories in unique ways. The interactivity of games forces writers to approach story in a different way and games like Alan Wake and Control tell outstanding, original stories (and can often be genuinely creepy).
Janine Cross Interviews…Frank Cernik!
January 18, 2023
Frank Cernik has worked as a story editor and book coach for sci-fi and horror clients since 2016. By pulling story elements like characterization and world building into tighter resonance with authors’ themes and vision, he gives books the kind of staying power that keeps readers coming back. You can find his website at: https://frankcernik.com/
Let’s start with something tried and true: why do you edit horror? How did you get started with it?
Horrific moments show up in all kinds of genres, and my history with horror starts with an oblique angle. I was a squeamish kid, the kind who asked if everyone would be okay in the middle of a campfire ghost story, then one day in my mid-teens my younger brother showed me a Rammstein music video. At first, I found it pretty disturbing, but I found myself returning to it: there was something about it, about watching a half-nude man eat an angel’s wings, that I needed to understand. In retrospect, I think it was the simple acknowledgement that some things won’t be okay. Horror is one of the genres that is closest to tragedy, and after obsessing over that music video for a while I started seeking horror out.
What do you think makes good horror? Are there certain challenges in this genre that you, as an editor, pay particular attention to?
The piece that interests me most is horror’s relationship with trauma. Lots of stories in other genres will talk about trauma, but it has a special place in horror. One effective way to present it is through its consequences: kinds of pain that can’t be escaped, the lingering effects of neglect and ostracism, the spectre of misdeeds that persist. What do we do when, to quote Faulkner, the past is never dead, and isn’t even past? How do we respond to atrocity, or use its wreckage to make a world worth living in? How should we understand the harm that’s been inflicted, and the harms which are ongoing?
As for the particular challenges and pitfalls, I think the main one is in that relationship with trauma. Lots of people turn to horror to process their own experiences, and it’s important to be respectful of real pain. Depending on the work, that can mean cutting a shallow depiction of one thing, or it can mean drilling down and making the time for something else that seemed incidental but was secretly core to the work’s themes.
You’ve been editing since 2009. What changes have you seen over the years with respect to horror content? What changes would you like to see?
I’d love to see more people take cosmic horror and bring it home, so to speak. A lot of cosmic horror starts from a relatively well-understood version of our world, then has a fundamentally alien outside that intrudes upon the knowable world and damages the narrator’s senses of safety and self. What if we don’t have a knowable world, though? What if we are alien to ourselves and live on a world that is stranger still? To me, this was the most exciting part of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation: the depiction of a world that isn’t simply quirky but which actively resists being understandable, even to specialists, and meanwhile those same specialists are thinking thoughts and making decisions that even they find mysterious and inexplicable.
On the subject of the idiosyncratic, Addams Family creator Charles Addams said that “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” How do your lived experiences inform your editing practices in horror?
One of my coping strategies as an Autistic person in a neurotypical world has been to cultivate interests in emotions and in language, including in the academic studies I mentioned earlier. My support needs are low and I’ve always been able to operate on stealth mode (even if my interest in being stealthy has waned as I’ve aged), but even so I’ve regularly been surprised at neurotypical folks’ inconsistent standards and their propensity to interpret suggestions as criticism. (If this makes you uncomfortable, reader, please consider how framing Autistic tendencies as deficiencies feels to us. It’s not more correct just because it’s more common.)
Many of those surprises were upsetting to me, and I decided I wanted to learn how to express myself exactly and how to rigorously compare and contrast neurotypicals’ feelings to my own: the idea was to proactively manage both the message and its reception, and for better or for worse it seems to have worked. As an editing bonus, there’s a lot of crossover between “making sure people receive my message as intended” and “making sure the readers’ experiences line up with the author’s vision.”
What has reading horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Horror has taught me that nothing should be taken for granted. There is no guarantee that events will resolve themselves in any kind of satisfactory way, and even if we give all of our effort to resist and to make the changes we want for ourselves, we might still be outmatched. However, if we stay passive, then we leave ourselves to the whims of those who threaten us.
It’s also taught me to take care of myself. I’ve often found that if I start feeling erratic or unfocused, horror will help me to ground and re-center myself. Giving myself a horror reboot like that makes me just better at doing the things I care about. It’s not necessarily a lesson in horror as an aggregate genre, but the way that I interact with it and with myself is still instructive.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror writers today?
Revisions and redrafting take a very different kind of focus than drafting does. Trying to do both at once will sap all of the drafting energy you might have, and will significantly undermine your ability to finish what you’ve started. The first draft’s job is ‘to exist,’ and ‘to be good’ shouldn’t come in until at least the end of the second draft. So: if you are still drafting, please finish that before you start making adjustments to your existing scenes.
The sole exception to this is if you find yourself with writer’s block, which I generally believe to be a symptom of an outline (for plotters) or conceptual framework (for pantsers and plantsers) that isn’t fully baked. In that case, you may need to restructure a completed scene before you can progress with the next (or unfinished) one.
Also, success can be a difficult thing to predict, so writing for broad appeal might not get you where you want to go. Try instead to write something that goes deep, that really examines something specific and does so in detail. That kind of concentration will give readers something clearer to grab on to and compel their interest; it’s a better hook.
Joel McKay Interviews… Caitlin Marceau!
Dec 02, 2022
Caitlin Marceau is a queer author and lecturer based in Montreal. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing, is an Active Member of the Horror Writers Association, and has spoken about genre literature at several Canadian conventions. She spends most of her time writing horror and experimental fiction, but has also been published for poetry as well as creative non-fiction. Her work includes Palimpsest, Magnum Opus, and her debut novella,This Is Where We Talk Things Out. Her second collection, A Blackness Absolute, and her debut novel, It Wasn’t Supposed To Go Like This, are set for publication in 2023. For more, check out her website at www.CaitlinMarceau.ca or find her on social media.
Q: Your debut novella, This is Where We Talk Things Out, was released in September and follows the gut-wrenching, and, frankly, disturbing journey of Miller and her estranged mother, Sylvie. Author Laurel Hightower described it as “one of the most horrifying reads of the year.” Tell us how the exploration of a mother-daughter relationship worked as a solid root for a horror story.
A: I think there are a few reasons why this premise works so well in horror. The first is that, for most of us, we’re told that our parents are supposed to love us, keep us safe, and have our best interests at heart. So when they suddenly (or actively!) don’t, it’s naturally upsetting to us. It goes against one of the few things in life that we’re told to expect as true, which is always a great jumping-off point for a scary story.
I think another reason that it works so well is because it’s so possible. When you read about monsters, demons, or ghosts, there’s a level of disbelief that has to be suspended in order to let the terror of these stories really seep in. But family? Most of us know how quickly things can go from good to bad, so the idea of a mom snapping after the death of her husband isn’t as far-fetched or even as hard to relate to as, say, a vengeful spirit.
Q: Horror is experiencing a renaissance, but so is the novella. Why do you think we’re suddenly seeing so many horror novellas entering the publishing space? What is it about their structure that’s finally attracting the attention of writers, publishers and readers?
A: This is a great question and I wish I had a great answer for it! Unfortunately, I’m really not sure what’s driving the push for novellas in today’s climate. Part of me wants to believe it’s audiences having a deeper appreciation for the care and lean storytelling that goes into the medium (and this probably is the case!), but a more jaded side of me wonders if it’s people not having the attention span for novels, but still wanting more than a short story. Personally, writing This Is Where We Talk Things Out as a novella was purely accidental! I knew what story I wanted to tell when I started it, but I had no idea just how long (or short!) it was going to end up when I started writing it.
Q: This is Where We Talk Things Out is set in the remote Quebec wilderness in winter. How do you feel Canada and its geography lends itself well to horror stories? How do you think our voices add to or can influence the direction of horror literature?
A: Canada’s geography is perfect for horror! We’re like the second largest land mass in the world, but most of it is so treacherous that the majority of us live near the American border. And even with all of us grouped together that way, we’re so massively spread out across the continent that we’re still easily isolated from each other. Canada is the perfect country for horror stories and it always surprises me how under-utilized it is in the genre. I think that having more Canadian authors will not only help showcase just how nightmarish our country can be—and I really do mean that in a good way—but will also help highlight some under represented sub-genres (like isolationist and environmental horror).
Q: Laughlin Hills Community Magazine Issue 1 was also just published. You’ve described it as perhaps your favourite project yet. It seems to strike a balance between horror, comedy and the absurd. Tell us about it, and why do you think comedy and the absurd compliment horror so well?
A: I think it all comes down to that suspension of disbelief that I mentioned earlier. When you read horror, you have to be open to some absurd ideas right out of the gate. I mean, Dracula really doesn’t read as well if you refuse to buy into the idea of an immortal man sucking blood to stay alive, you know? It’s hard to watch Eight Legged Freaks if you won’t accept the premie behind it. But if you’re going to read something about giant spiders and have lowered your guard to accept the existence of a man-eating arachnid for the sake of the media you’re consuming, then there’s nothing to stop you from also accepting that his name is Claude and that he enjoys roller-derby on Thursdays too.
Q: What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
A: Write the stories you’ve always wished you could read. It’s the advice that Tamora Pierce gave me when I met her as a kid and I swear by it to this day. When you write stories you’re passionate about as a reader, your job as a writer gets a lot easier! I think a lot of people worry about writing stories for the current market, but that changes all the time. So don’t focus on following trends, focus on starting your own.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: So. Much. Stuff. My collection, Femina, is out from DarkLit Press on December 3rd so I’m really excited and really nervous for that release. Laughlin Hills Community Magazine Issue 2: Winter 2022 is also coming out this December from DarkLit Press and my illustrated chapbook,A Cold That Burns Like Fire, is out December 13th from Shortwave Publishing. So December is a wildly busy month for me! My third collection, A Blackness Absolute, then comes out in February from Ghost Orchid Press, and then there’s a slew of books coming out over the course of the year (some announced and some still tightly under wraps). So, you know, keeping pretty busy!
Janine Cross Interviews… Konn Lavery!
Nov 08, 2022
Your slasher book Rave was a finalist for several awards and won Bronze in the 2022 Horror Category of the eLit Awards. Indies Today said it’s “a disturbing and foreboding story that has all the makings of a new cult-classic”, and The Prairies Book Review called it “a thrilling journey into grit and horror.” This is fantastic! What was it about the slasher genre that drew you to it?
Thank you! I really wanted to tell an all-Canadian version of a brand-new slasher character. Slashers are a fun thrill ride and aren’t as commonly found in literature like they are in film. Many of the tropes defined in the 80s come from your classic iconic horror faces like Jason and Freddie that should be respected.
I toyed with the idea of writing a script while I was also intrigued by finding a way to convert a slasher film’s highly visual and fast-pacing methods into the literary world. Books generally go a lot deeper into scenes, backstories, and the psyche of characters, which opens a whole new way of expanding on slasher characters rather than simply being a gore ride. You can also express feelings and ideas to the reader through the medium, which is impossible to do in a film.
I’ve always been a fan of all types of horror and love how the genre can bleed into other genres quite effectively, like thrillers, sci-fi, and fantasy. Of course, you need to have all the violent tropes, and foolish choices, for it to fit properly within the slasher genre. You can also pull people’s heartstrings by making them emotionally invested with the characters. With Rave, I wanted to stick purely to horror and respect the roots while bringing a fresh spin on such a fun genre while representing Canada.
Is Rave connected to your collection of interactive short stories, Beyond the Macrocosm, and how? Can you talk a little about what other works share in the same universe?
Rave is! Two short stories offer further details on the novel’s villain. The first is a manifesto by the murderer, while the other provides a back story, giving readers a more human experience of who they are and how they are linked to the protagonist. Almost all of my work is housed within the same universe as Beyond the Macrocosm. I have been building the Macrocosm around 1999 when I wrote down the first short story containing The Kingdom of Zingalg, a fictional place that shows up in my dark fantasy series Mental Damnation.
At the time, the Macrocosm didn’t have a name. It wasn’t until Into the Macrocosm was released in 2020 that the shared universe had a name. Rave, Cultivate: Seed Me Relapse Edition, Mental Damnation, YEGman, and both short story collections are all within the same universe. The short story collections offer glimpses of how the universe is tied together. I’ve intentionally kept it loosely bound because anyone should be able to pick up any other novels and enjoy them for what they are without being burdened by excessive backstories and character cameos that have nothing to do with the plot. There is a fun interactive timeline outlining all the novels and shorts within the universe right on my website’s home page. The new series I am working on pulls all the Easter eggs found within the novels into one straightforward story.
Do you make a conscious effort to include particular material or circumstances in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
Sometimes I do go into a story with a clear theme in mind. Other times story sparks from some obscure factor learned in a news article or a trivial thing a friend might have told me. Other times they fabricate from thin air during the process of writing.
Commonly I have a good idea of what genre the manuscript fits into from a broad scope. It isn’t until the novel is closer to completion that I work in certain tropes and details to better fit within a sub-genre. That way, it is confined to a suitable market. This is the same for themes or morals that I want to include in the story, an afterthought.
All good stories include the hero’s inner journey, which ties to the plot. Whether it’s a lesson learned or a personal transformation, the protagonist changes. These, on their own, are good fables that work as themes and naturally fit into the book.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
The advice I give every author is to keep writing without judging yourself. The more you write, the better you understand your voice and the tools you’re working with. Read frequently to learn cool tricks and new ways to write. Be careful not to burn yourself out. There’s only so much time in the day.
For horror writers, I’d recommend following the real world. Learn the history of human civilizations and cultures. There are ongoing trends and patterns seen throughout humanity over the centuries. Horror comes in many forms. Symbolism and monsters change over time while the themes, warnings, and story arcs remain constant.
What’s next for you?
Currently, I am working on what you could call “The Dark Tower series” of the Macrocosm. It is a dark urban fantasy series that is an excellent introduction for new readers to my work. It’s also an exciting expansion of how all the other novels relate to each other for readers familiar with my writing.
The working title for book one is Crystal Moths: Ash Book One. Here is the one-sentence pitch I’m working with: Lola, a fugitive after exposing the law’s connection to the notorious Crystal Moths, has her life and family destroyed, igniting her need for revenge and plunging her into a forgotten old world of greed, legend, and mythology. I aim to have the book out in 2023, so follow me on social media and the newsletter and keep watch for this exciting new series. I also write monthly short stories on Patreon, expanding the Macrocosm. konnlavery.com/newsletter Twitter Facebook Instagram Patreon
Thank you so much for having me! These have been awesome questions, and I’m excited to have moved to Vancouver.
Janine Cross Interviews… Colleen Anderson!
Sept 29, 2022
LVP Publications recently released your poetry collection I Dreamed A World in May 2022.(Absolutely gorgeous cover, btw!) What drew you to write poems that explore fairy tales, myths, witches, and legends from a female perspective?
I’ve loved fairytales since I was a child and the symbolism that often accompanies the tales. In exploring myths, legends and fairytales, they are a long evolution from one form to another, passed on through eras and reimagined to meet each new era’s paradigms. Beauty and the Beast is based off of Persephone and Hades, Rapunzel and her expulsion may be the Tarot’s Lightning Struck Tower. Snow White is about the age-old fading of youth and beauty, the envy that accompanies that state and the wish to always be in power. There are many tales and ways to interpret them.
As well, many of the Greek tales are all about the guys. Women could do little without a pater familias and were basically extensions of men, hence Zeus eating Athena’s mother so he could give birth to the goddess. What better way to negate women’s procreational powers. Zeus is a rapey god who takes on the form of various animals to have his way with women and goddesses. The other side can be argued to be an aspect of nature and the right of kings. But how did the women feel in this world dominated by men? What do they think? What will they do?
What are some of the questions that you hope your work will evoke in the minds of readers?
Since we are not yet free of patriarchal values and women being owned or murdered or kept as chattels by men, these stories and visions need to always be brought to the fore so that people think about the characters and what it means to be the victim or the unsung hero (heroine). Walk a mile in my shoes and perhaps you will see differently.
I hope that people will see another side, think about these age-old stories and tropes in new light, or even just enjoy the tales. I truly hope they will enlighten others so that we have a less male dominated world, but I also fear that those that need to change are those who would not read anything that doesn’t already meet their worldview.
How do you think dark fantasy and horror, and this collection of poetry specifically, can be a tool for social critique around feminist topics?
Women are strong because they have endured a lot. My poems portray women in their strengths, in their weaknesses, as victims, as warriors, and as monsters. In that sense, many of the poems are women taking back power through voice and actions, to become better or worse. While the collection focuses on women, essentially we are all human and therefore capable of being heroes or monsters, no matter the gender or culture.
I’ve always considered myself an egalitarian over being a feminist, but since there is such an imbalance throughout the world for women, the lens needs to be continually held up to these accepted tales of heroes and mighty men. Horror and dark fantasy allow this exploration into the shadows, to bring forth a brutality where needed, unfold nightmares in the safer environs of a book, and let readers ruminate and discuss what it means to be a witch or Leda, or a monster because a god seeks revenge on a mortal. I know I just said that those that should read these won’t, but change does happen…slowly. We can shift perspectives and we’re seeing some of that in parts of the world now, but humanity has a very long road to travel first.
When the scales are balanced, we might only then need to discuss such writings in a historical context. Until then, we look at history, how it’s repeated and if something can be learned or changed due to new retellings and visions.
Are there any images that feature strongly in your work, and what have influenced them?
I had a series of books when I was a child and they are some of the good memories: My Book House by Olive Beaupre Miller. Ranging in colour from green to dark blue, the 12 hardcover books, geared to each year of a child’s growth from probably age 4. They started with rhymes and fairytales and moved up to the longer Arthurian stories and epics. I never did read the last ones. The books disappeared but I was lucky to find four at a bookstore years ago. They contained line drawings with pale teal and orange as colours until the later books, and they were my safe haven.
Fairytales, witches, myths: these tales have been told for hundreds of years, as warnings, as entertainment, as primers for behavior and belief. They continually evolve as do our times. For me, that childhood fascination continues with reimagining the fantastical past, the historical elements and the possibilities of other pathways.
How does your non-writing life play into your poetry writing?
I’m an observer of patterns, colours, nature, and interactions so those aspects flow into my writing. As a child in a family rife with emotional, physical and sexual abuse, poetry was my outlet for staying sane and taming my monsters. In recent years, with various traumas, including the isolating covid lockdowns, I embraced poetry more closely as a way to grieve and to take my mind from loneliness. Human interactions with other beings, (animals or human) the environment, and ourselves all play into my writing, my paintings of words.
What’s next for you?
I have a collection of poems on magical objects, and The Lore of Inscrutable Dreams should be out next year. I’m also working on a series of poems about Rapunzel. There is a seed being planted to do some collaborative collections with mythic/fairytale poetry, which I’m quite excited about. I’ve not collaborated on poetry before so just as I hope my poetry pushes boundaries for readers, collaborations are a way to expand my own boundaries.